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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Image may contain: text that says 'ROCKBRIDGE CIVIL DISCOURSE SOCIETY'I created the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society in July 2018. It was an online offshoot of a small in-person group of people from different ideological and partisan backgrounds. I had spent the previous year writing daily emails to my congressional representative, Republican Bob Goodlatte, and publishing them at my blog Dear Bob. It was a very one-sided conversation and so a kind of political performance art. I was craving actual conversation. But trying to accomplish online what RCDS was accomplishing in-person was at best difficult. It’s an understatement to say the internet doesn’t foster thoughtful, open-minded discussion. Oddly, beers help. And bar snacks. And the effort of planning and physically going somewhere to meet other people fact to face, rather than dashing off a snarky comment in a Facebook thread while multi-tasking at your desk.

Results have been endlessly mixed. A couple of Democrats I encouraged to join in the early days of the page dropped out because they said it made them uncomfortable watching me try to interact with people who were not onboard with the whole civility thing. It was like witnessing an abusive relationship, they said. It’s gotten better. The page has grown to include over two hundred people. About a third actively participate, probably another third are active readers, and I’m guessing the other third have wandered off to other Internet fields.

I have no idea how the ideological census breaks down, but there’s plenty of strong opinions coming from both sides of the divide. I keep spending a lot of time trying to redirect “conversation” in more productive directions, pointing out that maybe certain posts and comments aren’t the most effective way to invite engagement. There’s a slow but constant flow of new members, some who arrive ready to participate productively, and some who seem weirdly hostile to the purpose of the page. I admonish both progressives and conservatives, and both progressives and conservatives have accused me of being unfairly one-sided.

I’ve also found that if I engage long enough and sincerely enough with an entrenched conservative, they’ll usually come around to seeing me as a reasonable and well-intentioned guy who they can talk to without making generalized attacks. They still think I’m wrong about most political issues, but merely wrong, not inherently bad. Unlike my Dear Bob blog, the RCDS page has been extremely two-sided, but there’s still been a kind of political performance quality to it. Rather than achieving and maintaining a goal of civil discourse, there might be something useful about watching some guy working again and again to achieve it. That process may be more important than the product. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself again and again. On good days I sincerely believed it.

With my sabbatical over and a challenging semester starting with the pandemic and my vice-chairing my department, I’m taking a breather from RCDS. Whatever the results and its ever-quixotic goals, I have learned a few things in the process. Here’s my work-in-progress advice list for engaging with folks who don’t vote like you:

  1. Be respectful. Not just of each other, but of each other’s points of view and the elected officials each supports.
  2. A debate is just a polite fistfight. Conversation requires recognizing that your current opinion might not be entirely right and is almost certainly incomplete.
  3. If you want to express an opinion, express it in a way that invites discussion with someone who doesn’t already agree with it.
  4. If you criticize a public figure, keep your focus targeted (so not a general desire to criticize them) and principled (would you criticize someone you support for the same behavior?).
  5. Ask yourself: is your aim to complain or persuade?
  6. Facts help. No fact-check is perfect, but they promote the right principle. If you make a claim, support it with a well-vetted source of verifiable information.
  7. Most sources have some bias, but some have lots. It helps to draw from a centrist range.
  8. Op-eds are generally a bad idea. Too many present an intentionally lopsided selection of misleading facts designed to create an emotional impression that confirms a target audience’s political preferences. It’s better to chew your own food.
  9. Memes are generally a terrible idea. Too many present an absurdly lopsided creation of false information designed to manipulate a target audience’s feelings of righteous outrage. Don’t be a puppet.
  10. Beware your own brain. It came hard-wired for verification bias (ignoring things that don’t support your opinion) and cherry-picking (noticing only things that do support your opinion).
  11. Beware your own environment: consuming a steady diet of lopsided political news and entertainment encourages blindness to your own blindnesses.
  12. Beware your own emotions. Your political beliefs weren’t born from objective contemplation. They also satisfy some emotionally-driven instincts. You might want to figure out what those are.
  13. When you talk to people who share your political opinions, weaknesses in logic go unnoticed, assumptions look like self-evident facts, and people who don’t agree are easily stereotyped, dehumanized, and demonized.
  14. Talking only to people who share your political opinions promotes self-righteous contempt towards those who don’t. Every horrible thing you believe about them they believe about you. Every passionate insult you express about them they express about you. Your moral superiority is a self-evident fact. Their moral superiority is a self-evident fact.
  15. Take a leap of faith: no matter how passionately you disagree with someone, assume they are a good person trying to do good.
  16. If you think their behavior is bad, not engaging with them makes their behavior worse. Allowing them to believe that people like you are bad strengthens their misperception.
  17. Start a conversation by finding something you agree about.
  18. Start a conversation by showing you understand and respect an opposing viewpoint even though you don’t agree with it.
  19. Start a conversation by acknowledging weaknesses in your view even though you feel the strengths outweigh them.
  20. Start a conversation by citing people and sources the other person admires.
  21. Start a conversation by asking a sincere question. What do you wish you understood better about those you disagree with? Often the answer reveals a false assumption in the question, but you can’t discover that until you ask it.
  22. Some approaches that don’t work: insults, attacks, sarcasm, exaggerations, generalizations.
  23. Don’t confuse politeness and civility. You can be perfectly polite and entirely uncivil. Politeness is a surface behavior. Civility is a deep commitment.
  24. Self-righteousness is an addictively and destructively euphoric drug. Civility is its hard-to-maintain and constructively boring treatment. Expect relapses. Commit to recovery.
  25. The goal is lofty: bridge the political divide by building trust between people with different ideological reflexes and partisan backgrounds. We’re not at war. We’re neighbors and family.
  26. Progressives and conservatives working together doesn’t make them moderates. It makes them conservatives willing to work with progressives and progressive willing to work with conservatives.
  27. Finding common ground doesn’t mean sacrificing core beliefs. Differentiate between what you need and what you want. Give others what they need, even if it violates what you want. Expect to get what you need, even if it violates what they want.
  28. Compromise is the defining principle of democracy.
    Image may contain: text that says 'ROCKBRIDGE CIVIL DISCOURSE SOCIETY'Here’s the too-long but shareable meme version:

I always find it disconcerting when the uniquely U.S. genre of the Western ends up in the hands of a non-U.S. author. It’s like blinking into a fun house mirror and trying to understand what you look like through the distortions.

Amazon.com: Cowboy eBook: Villadsen, Rikke, Villadsen, Rikke ...

Since the western is already a massive distortion, the warpage can be a kind of corrective, especially in the artful hands of Danish artist Rikke Villadsen. Cowboy is her second English-language graphic novel, a kind of thematic sequel to 2019’s The Sea, also published by Fantagraphics. I’m already looking forward to whatever new Villadsen book they put out next year.

Though so many U.S. pop culture hero types cry for feminist revision, the pseudo-historical and hyper-masculine gun-slinger is at the top of my list. Since the western is probably best known through films, comics are an apt medium for re-exploring the genre since they are equally visual but are also fantastically unbound by physical reality. Lisa Hanawalt’s 2018 Coyote Doggirl offered a useful gender-flip (with a dog-headed cast) while maintaining a love for landscape and horses, while Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang’s 2017 The Smell of Starving Boys scrambled sexuality with a muddled mystic take on Native culture. Villadsen’s approach is something entirely different.

Fantagraphics Books on Twitter: "Cowboy by Rikke Villadsen is out ...

First off, don’t expect a plot—even though the novel does open with a “Starring” page of six seemingly archetypal characters including “The Sheriff,” “The Whore,” and “The Coward.” Yet how archetypal is “The Smoker”? And I’m embarrassed to admit that I paused over “The Window,” wondering if such a glaring translation typo could have snuck through book production. Villadsen both means and doesn’t mean “The Widow.”

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

That sort of intentional disconnect describes Villadsen’s overall aesthetic. Readers can never be entirely certain if they’re in the right story or not. Or I should say viewers, since Cowboy is predominately a visual experience of Villadsen’s entertainingly idiosyncratic style. Her lines are entirely black and blue with a looseness and sometimes sketchy incompleteness that gives her story world both an expressively raw energy and a weird indeterminacy—as if any moment could be crumpled up and redrawn differently. Her pages vary around a pleasantly sloppy 2×2 grid. Sometimes figures and objects partially overlap the thin lines dividing panels, but not as if breaking frames for action effects. It looks instead like Villadsen’s lines just like to wander sometimes.

Her narrative structure overlaps similarly. The six character-perspective chapters partially backtrack, trodding on each other’s time frames, but without clarifying an overall structure. Did The Smoker shoot The Coward before or after The Window looked through her window? Did The Whore orgasm and float through her window before or after The Window dressed herself in The Coward’s clothes? And after The Wanted man argues with his talking image in his Wanted poster, does he wake up on the previous morning before the novel began? If so, does his physical transformation into The Window mean the whole novel is an endless loop?

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

Of course none of these questions are answerable, and they shouldn’t be. It’s not the enigmatic events that matter but their conversations with Western tropes. Sometimes those conversations are literal. Villadsen’s idiosyncratic lines extend into her scraggly talk bubbles and looping letterforms. The Smoker spends pages trying to complete a single, faltering sentence: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck and the people who … And the people who have the job of doing … of doing the … the … the …”

A short paragraph on the final page explains that this and other dialogue is excerpted from classic Western films including Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West.  I’m always happy to see an excerpt credited, but the note is odd since any reader who hasn’t noticed that Villadesen “deconstructs” the genre by “subverting its masculine framework” will surely never make it to this concluding page. It’s also redundant since the John Wayne cameo makes the “homage” explicit, and is there a way to read the novel other than gender subversion?

After the Coward dies his cowardly death, The Window strips his corpse while striking erotic poses that if drawn by a male artist would probably make me lose trust in the project. The sex scene between The Smoker and The Whore is similarly disturbing. There’s nothing erotic about the interior view of the woman’s vagina as the erect penis crushes a fly trapped on its tip. Did the fly’s death cause The Whore to orgasm through the window? Will she remain there forever lassoed above the saloon by The Smoker’s rope? If so, it’s a better fate than the rest of the cast.

I’m not sure what counts as a spoiler for a loopingly surreal mash-up of metafictional events, so I’ll just say the death count increases. What matters more is the implied gender critique behind all the genre chaos. It seems no woman, even a woman who perfectly impersonates a man, can ever occupy a man’s Western-defined role. It also seems an attempt is doubly self-destructive, because regardless of her eventual physical fate, the transformation requires a woman to perform and internalize woman-destroying misogyny.

It’s less clear what Villadsen has to say about women who do conform to gender roles. Is The Whore equally tragic, or is her inexplicable defiance of gravity also a social defiance? I would prefer that interpretation, but her bobbing bare breasts suggest otherwise.

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

The fate of Villadsen’s men are similarly ambiguous. Likening the “useless hole” of The Coward’s bullet wound to a vagina reinforces Western gender, and so is that the point? Is Villadsen critiquing by making the norms explicit through exaggeration? And The Smoker’s death by bizarre smoking accident and The Wanted’s own gender transformation, what beyond surreal entertainment do they suggest?

In the end, Cowboy is more than a political diatribe. It’s an aggressively peculiar take on an already aggressively peculiar genre. Little wonder the fun house mirror never comes fully into focus.

Rikke Villadsen (Person) - Comic Vine

[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS section of POPMATTERS.]

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I’m pleased to announce that Routledge has officially published my second collaboration with Nathaniel Goldberg. After wetting our toes in Superhero Thought Experiments, this is our deep dive into the literary and pop-cultural concepts of reboots, retcons, and sequels, providing a philosophical framework and applications well beyond the world of comics that inspired them. Our working title had been “Bilbo, Brontosaurus, and the Bible,” which might give you a sense of both our scope and the oddness or our specifics. Though I’m the literary critic of our dynamic duo, Nathaniel is the Tolkien expert.

Here’s (much of) the Introduction:

Amazon.com: Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical ...

Novelists change old characters by restarting their stories and reinterpret old stories by revealing new things about them. Journalists correct mistakes in earlier articles, while science writers update textbooks after the latest discoveries. Religious communities follow scriptures that sometimes reinterpret and other times continue previous views of the divine.

These are revisions of written texts concerning fiction, fact, and faith, respectively. Such revisions are ubiquitous. Philosophers however have tended to focus on revisions not of written texts directly but rather of the meanings and theories that those texts express. Even then they have usually focused on factual texts. We provide a philosophical account of revision of written texts both directly and generally.Filling that conceptual gap produces unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion.

The phenomena of revision that we analyze is perhaps most recognizable in literary and popular culture. Though not new, its prevalence is relatively recent. Film culture is especially rife, and we might draw from any of a wide range of franchises. All series have installments that follow one another, and many of the sequential Halloweens, Missions Impossible, and Rockies continue (albeit often loosely) adventures in the same fictional worlds without either restarting or revealing new things about earlier installments. Star Wars also provides multiple examples of installments occurring later (Episodes VII–IX) and earlier (Episodes I–III) than the initial series of stories (Episodes IV–VI). Yet later installments of that initial series also reveal new things about its own earlier installments (the status of Luke’s father, Darth Vader, in Episode V, and his sister, Leia, in Episode VI). Marvel movie franchises include later stories that restart earlier ones about Spider-Man. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) restarts The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), which may itself be considered a restart of the comic book series Amazing Spider-Man begun in 1962. Moreover sometimes some prefer an earlier installment to a later one. Star Wars fans are especially (in)famous for this.

Comics publishers Marvel and DC themselves present an overwhelming number of examples of revision. Frequently later stories pick up earlier plots without changing them. They do not do so always. As we explained elsewhere (Gavaler and Goldberg 2019, 110–11), the first comics example of a later story revealing something new about an earlier one occurs when Action Comics #13 (June 1939) reveals that newly introduced Ultra-Humanite was behind crimes detailed in Action Comics #2 (July 1938). The first example of a later story restarting an earlier one occurs when Showcase #4 (October 1959) restarts the story of Flash, detailed in Flash Comics #1 (1946) and continued through All Star Comics (1951). The prevalence of revelations and restarts, rather than mere continuations, in comics is likely due to their multi-author nature. Characters are intellectual property owned by corporations, which in turn employ a constantly changing roster of writers collectively revising serially published fiction.

Yet literary fiction by single authors exhibits the same revisionary phenomena too. The majority of Louis Erdrich’s novels either continue or reveal new things about her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), and fifteen of William Faulkner’s novels are set in his fictional Mississippi Yoknapatawpha County introduced in Sartoris (1929) and so continue its story. Because Harper Lee’s first written manuscript Go Set A Watchman (2015) has similar but distinct individuals, objects, and events from her more famous and first published manuscript To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Go Set a Watchman restarts To Kill a Mockingbird’s story, though had the publication order been reversed then the reverse would be so. In Lee’s case, a majority of readers likely accept the earlier published work, rejecting the later one as non-canonical. The variant manuscripts of Hamlet are themselves alternating restarts and rejections of restarts of the same story, and the relationships among the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles involve an especially complex combination of all the kinds of revision that we analyze. Add the vast online platforms for fan fiction about all such movies, comics, novels, and more and the application grows exponentially.

The field of textual scholarship—including bibliology (studying the history of books as physical objects), paleography (dating historical manuscripts through handwriting analysis), and textual criticism (studying variants of manuscripts, such as Hamlet)—opens the range of possible application even further. Our goal however is not to overview its application, including within just literary studies. Though our philosophical account of revision is inspired by and applies to numerous narrative texts, it is not limited to them and its application beyond them is at least as significant. While our study should be of interest to literary critics and theorists, popular-culture scholars, and narratologists generally, it is not a work of literary theory of criticism. It instead generalizes insights from fiction to reveal unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion. Moreover we limit our analysis of fiction to a single set of texts by a single author. Because his fictional texts encompass various kinds of revisions, we begin with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel (“J.R.R.”) Tolkien.

Chapter 1, “There and Back Again,” distinguishes the purely physical aspects of texts, the linguistic aspects of texts, and the worlds to which the latter refer. It then turns to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to establish that sometimes new texts are read as replacing old ones, as revealing something new and seemingly contradictory about old ones, and as continuing old ones. Further, sometimes others reject such revisionary readings. The chapter isolates, identifies, and analyzes each of these revisionary kinds as well as their rejection, using Tolkien’s texts as exemplars.

Chapter 2, “Semantic Dualism,” demonstrates that two different theories of the reference and meaning of proper names, descriptivism (the common core of Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege’s, Bertrand Russell’s, and their followers’ views) and referentialism (the common core of John Stuart Mill’s, Saul Kripke’s, Hilary Putnam’s, and their followers’ views), explain each of the revisionary kinds and rejection just considered. Neither however explains them all. The chapter then argues that the two theories previously construed as competitors are instead complementary components of a single semantic account. We call that account ‘semantic dualism’.

Chapter 3, “Metaphysical Foundations of Fiction and Fact,” likewise relies on two analyses of fiction previously construed as competitors, David Lewis’s and Kripke’s, to propose our own metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact out of their complementary components. It then compares those foundations to others.

Chapter 4, “Reporting, Applying, Bracketing,” expands our metaphysical foundations by canvasing case studies concerning fictional and factual planetary objects, thereby making forays into the history and philosophy of astronomy. It does so to distinguish reporting of fact, applying of fiction, and bracketing of texts as fact or fiction.

Chapter 5, “Considering Kuhn,” demonstrates that our philosophical account of the revision of fictional texts of fantasy literature applies equally to the factual texts of scientific disciplines. It does so by bringing that account into dialogue with Thomas Kuhn’s famous analysis of factual, and specifically scientific, change. Considering how the history of astronomy and dynamics converge, the chapter then diagnoses where Kuhn and his critics disagree and uncovers distinctions that they missed. The chapter closes by further distinguishing fiction from fact by analyzing restrictions on kinds of revisions.

Chapter 6, “Being Brontosaurus,” analyzes a complex episode in the history of paleontology. Besides showing a further application of our philosophical account of revision, the chapter also demonstrates how scientific and popular texts can diverge. And it provides a general analysis of illustrations.

Chapter 7, “Analyzing Abraham,” expands our account to religious texts. The chapter argues that, rather than being distinct, such texts are always also read as other kinds, that faith tends to be more important as evidence for religious texts than for others, and that the latter explains why religious communities tend to have remarkable historical longevity. The chapter then applies our total analysis to compelling episodes in the history of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Finally, the conclusion catalogs overall lessons that Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith reveals. These concern revisionary kinds and their rejection; reference and meaning; metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact; planetary objects, dinosaurs, and religions; and fiction, fact, and faith, and their revision. The chapter closes with the metaphilosophical lesson that one way of studying fiction, fact, and faith is studying the history of how their corresponding texts have been revised, offering a philosophical account of revision.

Amazon.com: Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical ...

 

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It’s a matter of perspective.

A painting is cubist because it presents more than one perspective. A drawing is a cartoon depending on the perspective of the person looking at it and whether they think there’s a divide between comics and fine arts. That’s one of the reasons I like John Pham’s graphic novel J&K. Its world is a colorful jumble of discordant perspectives, some literal, some metaphorical.

New Releases :: Newly Available :: J&K

As Jay and Kay are walking home in the opening pages, a rush-hour crowd weaves around them. Some of the figures are standard cartoons with giant round facial features on giant round heads. But some faces are more inexplicable, doubling mirror-like along a horizontal axis instead of a vertical one. Jay and Kay would fit into most newspaper funny pages, but their best frenemy Eggy’s face is composed of a dozen bulbous half-circles. Though peculiar, the fact goes without notice within the story world because the style isn’t all that different from the other characters. One of the guys cat-calling Jay and Kay has two mouths, and the other’s face follows the cubist logic of a Picasso portrait: three angled squares with a wedge of a mouth on the back of the head and a misplaced nose near the chin.

Pham’s landscapes are peculiar too. Sloping roofless buildings line the minimalist streets. The mall looks like a modernist architect’s incomplete blueprint. Many panel backgrounds are just a spray of vibrant color with little illusion of depth. Pham changes styles for the video games, creating avatars of free-floating balls and pyramids that draw attention to the peculiarities of the story world through contrast. The environment reminds me of the subtle chaos of George Herriman’s early twentieth-century Krazy Kat cartoons—which, depending on your perspective, should be hanging in the same galleries as Picasso and other artists of the same period.

John Pham's J + K |

Pham also explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle. That scary witch shuffling down the empty street toward you? Don’t worry. She just wants to give you a hug and a sweater. And those ghouls grabbing your ankles as they crawl from their graves? They just want to scold you for not being a better parent. Also, they’d be happy to babysit Wednesdays and Thursdays. Even the vampires at the mall you hurry past, they’re just depressed and lonely. Why don’t you hang out and talk awhile?

 

A Colourful Riso-Printed Celebration of Loveable Losers - ELEPHANT

 

The novel is structured as a set of discrete but linked episodes punctuated by full-page ads: laundry detergent, horror movie, video game player, cassette store, taco mix, the mall. Since each reflects events from the story world, the effect is both consumer critique and metafiction. The ads also add to Pham’s pastiche aesthetic, with every story element seemingly borrowed from some other real or fictional source. Better still, the novel contains several mini-comics, including a copy of Cool magazine Jay likes so much, directions for playing Eggy’s video game Dance Warrior, and a vinyl single of Gaseous Nebula’s “Deep Space.” Like Kay, I don’t have the technology to play the song, but I agree with her when she explains to Kay: “I dunno. I just like having it.”

New Releases :: Newly Available :: J&K

Pham’s pastiche also includes transitional words in the corner of panels (“And,” “So,” “Finally”) that could be lifted from any of Chris Ware’s graphic novels, and he swiped Eggy’s sweater from Schultz’s Charlie Brown. Eggy looks suddenly very Garfield-like when he transforms into a cat for the last fifth of the novel. That’s not a spoiler. There’s no narrative explanation for the change. Jay and Kay are also suddenly cats. Why? Pham’s apparent answer: well, why not?

New Releases :: Newly Available :: J&K

It turns out the lives of cartoon animals and cartoon people are pretty similar. There was a pleasantly bewildering moment where I imagined the characters had been animals all along and I simply hadn’t noticed before, but a quick flip of pages shows how easily Pham turns a cartoonishly round head of hair into cartoonishly round dog ears. The characters’ inner lives change about as much. Jay and Kay remain oddly consumed with liquids. Previously Jay was upset about her back sweat, and Kay about the drizzle of snot down Jay’s face when she was crying about her parents. Now as cats they wander the neighborhood drinking from dog bowls and bathtubs. Instead of shoplifting from the mall or stealing tacos from Eggy’s party, Jay and Kay go to the park and accidentally pee on beds. They still don’t like Eggy though.

There are plenty more oddities (the baby-like creature that erupts from Jay’s back acne is a biggie), but the overall tone is a wandering sadness as disconnected characters fail to find meaning in a cartoon world devoid of either literal or metaphorical depth. Even the unexpected death of a main character only confirms the novel’s background hum of loss. Of course Eggy drives away the girl he asks out because he’s wearing a cross and doesn’t realize she’s a vampire. Of course the one-armed army ghoul rebuffs Jay’s attempts to bond with him because her father was a vet too. We never find out what exactly happened to their parents, presumably because it doesn’t matter. They’re still absent.

Seeing the world from multiple perspectives doesn’t make it a happier place. Cartoons, Pham reveals, are flat for a reason.

John Pham Comics - Comic Vine

 

[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS section of POPMATTERS.]

 

 

 

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[Guest co-blogger Nathaniel Goldberg and I examine a recent Supreme Court decision in terms of sequels and retcons, two pop culture concepts we explore in our new book Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account.]

Responding to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, the National Review wrote in an editorial: “The Supreme Court Redefines Sex.” Others have also used “redefine” to explain the Court’s action. They’re understanding Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion as an update from previous findings. “Sex” used to mean one thing. With Bostock, it came to mean something else. In fiction, at least if we’re talking about serial works, we’d call Bostock a sequel. It continued the discussion of sex by giving it a new meaning, as a sequel continues the discussion of a hero by giving them a new adventure.

Sequel, however, doesn’t really describe things here.

That’s because, according to Gorsuch’s majority opinion, the Court didn’t redefine anything. Instead, the Court’s ruling was based on “the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings.” The ruling merely acknowledged that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from sex. Gorsuch’s opinion was reinforced by Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent, criticizing the majority for taking a “literalist” approach to Title VII language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(In fact, Gorsuch’s opinion matches the “Brief of Philosophy Professors as Amici Curiae in Support of the Employees,” signed by 80 philosophers and arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity are categories “partially defined by sex and cannot logically be applied to any individual without reference to that individual’s sex.”)

Yet, in a separate dissent, Justice Alito also correctly observed that gender identity was a concept “essentially unknown at the time” that the 1964 law was written. Is not knowing something the same as that something not existing?

A philosophical distinction helps. The Justices might not be disagreeing about metaphysics, or facts about the way things are. Maybe they all agree that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from sex. After all, being a lesbian means being female by sex and attracted to others of the same sex. Being transgender means being someone whose gender differs from their sex. The Justices also probably aren’t disagreeing about epistemology, or facts about what the authors of the 1964 law knew. The other justices likely all agree with Alito.

Rather, the justices are almost certainly disagreeing about whether epistemological facts (who knew what when) are more important than metaphysical facts (sex is inseparable from sexual orientation and gender identity). It’s a question of priority. Which is more important: what was known or what is the case—epistemology or metaphysics?

While at least Alito opted for epistemology, the majority opted for metaphysics. As Gorsuch argued: “the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.” The authors of the law referred to sex, which as a matter of metaphysical fact is inseparable from sexual orientation and gender identity. So the law refers to those too, even though the authors may not have known—let alone imagined—that it did.

In his 1980 book Naming and Necessity, philosopher Saul Kripke introduced the term “rigid designator.” A rigid designator designates, or refers to, the same thing in all possible circumstances the thing exists in. And that’s independent of our knowledge of the thing. “Water” referred to H2O in 1720, before people knew modern molecular theory, just as it refers to H2O in 2020, when people do.

Kripke is a philosopher of language, and he aimed to show that certain kinds of words—names for people or kinds of things—are rigid designators. On his view, they refer to metaphysical facts, independent of epistemological ones. That, we suggest, is the majority’s reasoning concerning “sex.” The Supreme Court didn’t redefine “sex.” It merely determined that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from what “sex” refers to. That follows from the “the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings,” including the legal term “sex.”

If Kripke’s notion of rigid designation is right, and “sex,” like “water,” is a rigid designator, then the metaphysics of sex, like the metaphysics of water, stays fixed, independent of our knowledge of it. Add to this Kripke’s view that definitions are about metaphysics and not epistemology, and you have Gorsuch’s point. Bostock didn’t redefine “sex.” It merely determined that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from what “sex” (already) means.

That’s Gorsuch’s conclusion, phrased in a philosophical key. The same conclusion can also be phrased in a literary-theoretical one. We’ve written elsewhere that rigid designators are essential to understanding the phenomenon of retconning.

“Retconning” is short for “making retroactively continuous.” Retconning happens all the time in serial fiction. Some metaphysical fact about some character is revealed later to be true, when in an earlier story no one would have accepted or likely even guessed at it. Retconning is also one way of understanding how legal decisions, including the Supreme Court’s, work. In 1896, the Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was constitutional. In 1954, the Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that it wasn’t. Yet Brown wasn’t a decision only for 1954 onward. Brown retconned Plessy. According to Earl Warren’s majority opinion in Brown, racial segregation had never been constitutional. It’s just that, in 1896, the Court mistakenly thought that it was.

Retconning broadens our epistemology by revealing new things about already-existing metaphysics that, at the time, we would have been rejected. Modern science revealed that water had always been H2O, even though no one in 1720 would have agreed (let alone understood). Brown revealed that racial segregation had always been unconstitutional, even though Plessy insisted that it wasn’t. And—to the present case—Bostock revealed that sexual orientation and gender identity had always been inseparable from sex, even though before Bostock not everyone realized that it was. While it’s surprising that the Court determined this 56 years after the law under review was written, it’s no more surprising than that the Court determined that racial segregation was unconstitutional 58 years after it had wrongly claimed otherwise.

That’s also why it’s not quite right to call Bostock a sequel to previous law, just as it wouldn’t be right to call Brown a sequel to Plessy. Sequels sometimes retcon what came before. But often they merely make what came before continuous, rather than retroactively continuous, with later findings or events. Brown didn’t continue Plessy’s findings. It revealed new things about Plessy that even its authors didn’t realize. Brown made Plessy retroactively continuous with it by declaring that, while it was decided correctly, Plessy had been decided incorrectly.

Back to the National Review. The editors claim that “it would have been better to leave the meaning of the law as it was when written and leave to Congress the decision of when and how to change it.” This is a misunderstanding of the ruling. The majority in Bostock did leave the meaning of the law as it was when written. They just broadened our epistemology by revealing that its meaning covered cases of sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s why Congress didn’t need to change it by writing a “sequel” law with a new definition. Bostock determined that no sequel, or continuation, was necessary, because the decision retconned “sex.”

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There’s weird, and then there’s Weird. Eric Haven is both. He takes an idiosyncratically weird approach to the horror genre of the Weird to produce a hybrid graphic novella that belongs to no genre but his own.

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Haven models his Cryptoid title design on the classic 50s horror comic Tales of the Crypt, but with intricate red lines that suggest a circulatory system, making the letters appear semi-living. The suffix “oid” means “resembling,” but rather than being crypt-like, a cryptoid is apparently a kind of hybrid creature: part animal and part whatever the hell Haven’s car-crash of an imagination can conjure next.

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There’s a Mankylosaurus (half human, half ankylosaurus) grazing at a restaurant salad bar. There are nine types of bat hybrids (half ant, eyeball, octopus, penguin, bear, nose, hand, and batman). The Resister is a half-human, half-eagle superhero battling Donald Trump and his evil, oozing, gray-skinned, tentacled Dark Lord, Steve Bannon. I don’t know what exactly the superhero-oid Nightsword is, but Haven lifted the wheeled but human-headed android Box directly from the classic 70s scifi film Logan’s Run. The Gnome looks like the garden variety found in lawncare stores—except his origin story involves a husband drowning in a flash flood and then inexplicably shrinking.

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After living in the miniature wild for years, he returns long-bearded to his astonished wife, crashing through their bedroom window on the back of a “flightless running shrieking bat.” Despite his changed appearance (why is his cap pointed now, and how does a hoodie grow into a tattered cape?), she says his name instantly: “Roger?” He stares back, as Haven draws a succession of panels zooming into his eyes and the ocean rolling inside them—which transitions into the actual ocean and a monstrous being emerging from the Mariana Trench.

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That’s the kind of peculiar transition Haven supplies between most of his interlocked vignettes. Technically, Cryptoid might be a collection of short comics (you can find part of “The Resister” at Haven’s website), but I would still call it a graphic novel because of its repeating characters, motifs, and structure. The internal logic of each scene may feel random, but the larger design is carefully constructed with nesting narratives.

You Become the Watcher in Eric Haven's 'Cryptoid' - PopMatters

After a title-page sequence, the novel opens with an alien face staring back at the viewer and then down at the Salad Bar where Mankylosaurus appears before going to bed. After the bats and gnome escapades and that unexplained creature rising from the deep, Haven draws two back-to-back superhero sequences, The Resister and then Nightsword, followed by Box’s adventure supermarket shopping. Then the creature from the deep continues his ascent in the second half of the now-titled “He Comes Slouching” (an unlikely allusion to Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming”), before Mankylosaurus wakes from a nightmare, and that alien watcher continues his silent observations.

If that doesn’t sound like the plot of a typical graphic novel, it’s not. Haven isn’t interested in narrative. Cryptoid follows the logic and aesthetic of pastiche. Many of the images echo classic comics. Though Haven references EC horror titles from before the company was hobbled by the censorship code in 1954, Marvel artist Jack Kirby may be the bigger influence.  That silent alien giant staring down at the globe of the Earth is a riff on Kirby’s Watcher from his early 60s Fantastic Four. And Kirby drew dozens of monster titles in the late 50s for Marvel’s pre-Marvel incarnation Atlas Comics. Even if the visual allusions are not all apparent, one of the pleasures of Cryptoid is intuiting the overlay of references filtered through Haven’s own idiosyncratic style.

Art - Eric Haven

Despite the superhero references, Haven’s action poses are aggressively un-heroic, suggesting the anatomical awkwardness of posed toy action figures rather than the grace and power of superhuman forms. Nightsword opens with a sequence of full-page images zooming in slowly to the character standing on a roof edge as if positioned there by a child’s hand. When the pages split into double panels, his figure raises an arm while the rest of his body remains unchanged—again as if the same child is hovering just out of frame, adjusting his joints between images. The effect is absurd in both appearance and pacing.

Next Haven draws unexplained swirls in the twirling sword’s wake, each an apparent gap in the fabric of reality. But what they are doesn’t matter. Haven just wants his viewers to look at them as they widen and cascade and consume whole panels. Eventually Nightsword’s squiggly body reforms from the tentacle-like swirls. What does this mean narratively? I have no idea. But the lack of narrative significance is part of the point.

Despite the horror and superhero surface material, Cryptoid may be best understood as a kind of abstract comic. Often the incremental panel-by-panel transformation of shapes and colors is the primary content, not the nominal action of a soon-to-be-forgotten character. We are like the watcher staring silently down at the peculiarities of Haven’s world, content to observe without intervening or even judging, indifferent to the plight of individuals but entertained by the odd and endless cycle of change.

 

Poetic Self-Destruction: An Interview with Eric Haven |

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Books section of PopMatters.]

 

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First, I doubt there’s much I will add to this topic that’s not been said elsewhere, and so unless you know and are interested in me personally, there’s not much reason to read this. Also, if you are a member of the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse, which I co-founded and co-moderate, you may have already heard me express some version of this first part:

I do not advocate “erasing history.” Memorials (such as statues and named locations and institutions) are not a part of the history that they memorialize. They are a history of how history has been memorialized, and so they are like history textbooks, only harder to change. To the best of my knowledge, every statue of a Confederate leader (Lee, Jackson, Davis, etc.) is an explicit celebration, not a neutral presentation of historical facts. Even so, I don’t want them erased. I think statues should be preserved but not displayed except in a carefully curated space.

I also have no desire to “attack,” “denigrate,” or “vilify” Lee, Jackson, or anyone else who fought in the Confederacy. But not celebrating is not the same as attacking. Ceasing to celebrate is also not attacking. I understand that these individuals were complex human beings who possessed a mix of traits, including some positive ones. I do not want to reduce them to their negative traits. I do not want to judge them harshly or unfairly or anachronistically by my contemporary values. But I don’t want to glorify them either. I want to understand them as human beings, not as monsters or saints.

Lee and Jackson have been described to me as honorable, loyal, brave, humble, ingenious, heroic, peaceful, and dedicated to the well-being of enslaved people through education. The memorials express the opinion that such attributes matter more than their other attributes. But I believe that slavery is so exceptionally and self-evidently repulsive that leading an effort to keep four million people enslaved cannot be offset enough to merit memorialization.

After 79% of the W&L faculty voted to approve a motion asking our board of trustees to removed “Lee” from our school’s name, the Washington Post headline the next morning included the adverb “resoundingly.” A friend emailed me a congratulations, but I had to say that the moment did not feel celebratory because, while some faculty members of color supported the motion, some objected to its inadequately inclusive process and a wrong-minded focus. I can literally only imagine their experiences. A queer-identifying friend described her experience when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage: That was not what she had been fighting for, and celebrations that drew energy away from her continuing fight were just the latest in an ongoing series of obstacles.

I admit that I did not support the motion “for” anyone other than myself. I cannot claim that my vote was my way of supporting my school’s faculty and students of color if: 1) I did not first ask them if they desired that specific act of support, and 2) there were other things they desired more. If someone claimed to be doing something “for” me without first asking my opinion about it, and while also not doing other things that I care about significantly more, I can imagine speaking against their action, even if the action in itself were something that I might otherwise, albeit mildly, approve of.

I understand that changing names can be merely “cosmetic,” “performative,” or “symbolic,” and that such changes alone achieves little and potentially distracts from more important efforts. I have heard that argument from both white conservatives and black progressives now, and I agree with it. But since symbols do have symbolic significance, changing them is not meaningless.

A memorial to a Confederate leader is statement that white supremacy isn’t important. Confederate memorials means a society is willing not only to overlook racist actions but to celebrate those and other actions for reasons that are unrelated to race. It is a statement of priorities. Other things—regional loyalty, family pride, military prowess, etc.—are more important than four million human beings remaining in slavery.

I can literally only imagine what a black person experiences, but as a white person I experience Confederate memorials as directives to remain silently complicit in the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. They’re hardly the only directives, or the most important ones, but they are some of the most flagrant. I may also be silently complicit in more significant ways. If a majority of black people defended memorials, I would accept that judgement. Still, I prefer my grandchildren to be born in a country that does not place people who committed extraordinary acts of white supremacy on pedestals. That feels to me like a minimal expectation.

I was recently accused of “propping up white supremacy” and “prioritizing racists” because I co-signed a Rockbridge Civil Discourse statement asking Lexington City Council to follow a process that all parties, whether for or against renaming the cemetery, could feel was fair. The accusation came from a white male progressive of roughly my age. I pointed out that many people in our community do not recognize white supremacy as white supremacy and so unless he had a strategy for persuading white conservatives about the existence and significance of unconscious bias and systemic racism his desire to “tear it all down” would fail.

I have regular conversations with conservatives who disagree with me about a range of issues, including Confederate memorials. I had a protracted conversation with the leader of an alumni organization that opposes removing Lee’s name from our school because we should instead “proudly celebrate” his legacy. Though I do not find it entirely convincing, the most effective argument I’ve heard on behalf of Lee and Jackson is that it is unfair that so many people now associate their names with racism. Maybe it is unfair. But if so, that unfairness does not counteract the fact that “Lee” and “Jackson” now primarily do mean white supremacy.

If I had grown up revering them because I had been taught that they should be revered, I imagine I might find the current meaning of their names bewildering. I imagine I would find it difficult to change something so deeply ingrained in me since childhood. I imagine I might feel attacked personally and might respond defensively and angrily. I imagine I might name a range of rationales for why Confederate memorials should remain, while avoiding the most overwhelming fact of these men’s lives: they chose to lead armies in a war to keep four million Americans in forced labor, poverty, torture, rape, and breeding. That’s why I asked for their names to be removed. I don’t think children, black or white, should be shaped by that reverence.

I’m glad my city council voted to remove Jackson’s name from our cemetery, and I am hopeful that my board of trustees will vote to remove Lee’s name from our school’s. Meanwhile, I will continue to work with members of my school and town to address more pressing needs.

 

This is Stooky Bill, television’s first celebrity. He premiered in 1925 from a department store in London. It was a publicity stunt. John Baird, the inventor, transmitted him by radio wave across the building. Later broadcasts would be electronic, but Baird’s was mechanical. He used a selenium cell, an old tea chest, an empty biscuit box, a perforated cardboard disc, and a neon-gas lamp to shine light through the spinning holes—two sets of each, the first to scan, the second to reassemble the strips of light into a replica. He started with thirty vertical strips, and eventually reached 240, which electronic TVs more than doubled. When they divided the strips into colored rectangles in the 60s, they called them pixels, short for picture elements, the smallest units of an image.

John Baird’s previous entrepreneurial projects included: artificial diamonds (he lost his engineering job at the electric company after diverting too much power), Australian honey, Baird’s Speedy Cleaner (Belgian soap), boot polish, Borax-filled socks (Baird’s Undersock), fertilizer, a flying machine, glass razors (never rust or tarnish), guava jelly (procured personally in Jamaica and eventually taken off his hands by a local sausage maker), pneumatic boots (the lurching experiment ended when one of the interior balloons burst), and selenium cells (permanently scarred his left hand).

Stooky was made of plaster, the kind used for broken bones. He was a ventriloquists’s dummy, because it was too dangerous for a person. Baird posed him in the glare, not minding when its straw hair singed, when its cheeks splintered, if one of the light-choppers spun loose and unhinged the jaw. He spoke to his hand clenched inside of the dummy’s head, and the dummy clacked something back. There’s no recording, no transcript.

When I projected this image from my laptop to our TV screen, my wife asked if I’d drawn our daughter. Apparently that’s the radio wave the spinning discs of my brain keep receiving. I made it in MS Paint. I make everything in MS Paint. It’s the equivalent of Baird’s contraption to Photoshop, but I like the limitations. The singed bits.

 

 

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Umma’s Table features standard cartoon characters: anthropomorphic animals with rounded heads, enormous facial features, and roughly proportional bodies. Emotions are an ever-changing arrangement of minimal lines—worried diagonals, smiling curves, radiating streaks of surprise. But artist Yeon-Sik Hong’s hand can also be unexpectedly nuanced. The novel’s prologue includes a two-page spread of the family’s new home, with nearly every brick, roof shingle, and fence link meticulously inked. Even the distant hilltops are crosshatched with individual trees. Yet as the narrator looks on, the back of his head is only a round, cat-eared outline without a single line of interior detail, contrasting the finely rendered wrinkles of his winter coat.

 

Umma's Table by Yeon-sik Hong review – Seoul food to make you purr ...

Differences between simplified characters and their more realistically detailed environments have been common in comics for almost a century, but Hong employs them for deeper effects that place the nature of his story world into intriguing tension. I want to refer to Umma’s Table as a memoir because it reads like a memoir (and is almost a sequel to Hong’s actual memoir Uncomfortably Happily). The effect is produced by the language of the first-person narration weaving between the speech balloons. The main character Madang describes moving into a new house with his wife and newborn son, cooking in the unheated kitchen, shoveling snow, ferrying his elderly parents to doctors’ waiting rooms, attending community meetings—the bricks and fence links in a realistically mundane yet compelling life. Where fiction typically emphasizes plot, Hong emphasizes a rich layering of events that creates the artful impression of memoir-like fiction.

 

Umma's Table review: Food exposes past joy and present danger

 

But reading Umma’s Table is very different from looking at it. If Janet Hong (no relation to the author) had not translated the English edition from Japanese (including footnotes in the gutters for signage within images), the novel would “read” very differently. The realism would give way to fantasy. The opening pages depict Madang’s car in apparent flight as it careens over a map of the landscape (and so understood as a visual metaphor) and also hovers a few feet above the road (less easily understood metaphorically). At first, the image might be dismissed as exaggeration: Madang took that bump in the road pretty fast and it feels like they’re flying. But then how did the cow from the pasture end up on top of the car too? As the family unpacks, the bags and boxes also hover and follow Madang as he carries furniture inside.

 

Umma's Table | Drawn & Quarterly

 

Rather than contained as prologue hyperbole for the thrill of moving in, the car continues to fly when Madang drives into an otherwise realistic city. Is this a world of magic anthropomorphic cats? Apparently not since no other cars appear to fly, and if Madang has magic powers, why doesn’t he use them to chop vegetables or shovel the relentless snow? Other quasi-cartoon qualities quietly infringe on the realism too. Do non-anthropomorphic animals speak in this reality? The mice “PEEP” and “SQUEAK” when they are near human-cat characters, but watching the family shiver in bed, they mutter to each other: “TSK TSK,” “THOSE POOR HUMANS.” If this is the world as warped by Madang’s psychological experiences, shouldn’t he have to hear them? 

 

Other instances are extreme enough that only a metaphorical interpretation seems possible. When Madang drives away from his parents’ apartment, his car rises into the blackness of outer space, and his mother waves goodbye from the globe of her tiny planet, a ring of medical pills orbiting it like a dozen moons.

 

Later while his son is nursing, Madang wonders: “Did my mother look this happy when she nursed me?” In the next moment, Madang pulls his son away from his sleeping wife’s breast to suckle there himself: “Iwan, Mommy’s boobies actually belong to Daddy.” In the next panels, little Iwan is roaring in cartoon furry, the wife is sleep-murmuring scribbles, and then her hand shoves Madang’s blurred and X-eyed face away from her. His body is also impossibly child-sized.

 

Did that really happen? Was it a dream, a daydream? Did Madang feel the impulse to suckle and then imagine the consequences? It’s difficult to know. The narration never acknowledges the event. It’s as if Umma’s Table is working simultaneously on two tracks, one verbal and one visual. More radically, it’s as if the novel takes place in two worlds, one mundanely realistic, the other fantastically ambiguous. Arguably all comics with words work on those two different tracks, and readers are so conditioned to read rather than to view, the tensions go largely unnoticed.

 

Umma's Table review: Food exposes past joy and present danger

 

Though the story is dominated by Madang’s melancholic narration of realistic events, Hong’s visual approaches maintain their own lower but playful register. When cooking, multiple images of Madang appear as if elbow-to-elbow along the sink and countertop that reappear across the vertical gutter to create the impression of a continuous space viewed through adjacent, window-like panels. Sometimes even one of the multiple Madangs is interrupted by the gutter, creating a visual complexity in counterpoint to the simple narration: “The kitchen was freezing, but I got through the winter without turning on the heat … which was only possible because I couldn’t feel the cold while cooking.” That unremarkable ellipse parallels the visually unusual gutter break, downplaying the oddity of the art.

 

Hong’s layouts are equally playful, a mixture of mostly three-row variants, some with curving edges that accent the emotion of a scene, others leading a viewer’s eye across the spine of a two-page spread to produce long double rows. Rather than establishing a repeating base pattern, each page wanders through a slightly different maze of panel shapes. The effect is subtle and, like Hong’s other visual features, easily overlooked while reading Madang’s story.

 

Umma's Table review: Food exposes past joy and present danger

Fortunately, that story is an equally good one. Its links are intricate too: a pile of dangerous pesticidal waste near the house, worrisome medical tests and fortune-teller prophecies, work deadlines, strange basement bugs, marital arguments over domestic duties, hospital bills, his father’s increasing alcoholism, his mother’s decreasing condition. Madang weaves between idyllic memories of his childhood and the grounding tasks of his adult life, two worlds in increasingly opposing orbits.

 

One of the novel’s strongest sequences is a visual counterpoint between the child Madang at his mother’s breast, and the adult Madang as his mother’s hospital bed. The removal of her breathing tubes parallels the snipping of an umbilical cord. Ultimately, the two tracks of Hong’s novel coalesce to capture both visually and verbally the painful aftermath and recovery of a parent’s death.

 

Yeon-sik Hong screenshots, images and pictures - Comic Vine

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Books section of PopMatters.]

 

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My university, like most universities across the country and globe, is struggling with a range of questions about how to operate during the pandemic this coming fall. I’d like to address two of those questions:

1) Is a zoom classroom inferior to a traditional classroom?

2) Should professors decide whether to conduct their classes traditionally or by zoom?

The short answers are: no and yes.

First an admission: I was on sabbatical this year and so avoided the staggering task of pivoting mid-semester and turning traditional courses into remote courses. I did observe many of my colleagues (including my spouse) and a few students (including my son who finished the last quarter of his first year at Haverford at our dining room table) make the transition, and the census seems to be: online classes kinda suck.

But of course that was the census. How could a course shoehorned mid-stride into a format unfamiliar to both the teacher and the students work as well as the intended format? Taking that very specific context of suckiness as evidence that online courses therefore are necessarily sucky would be like listening to a novice during a first piano lesson and concluding that pianos are godawful noise-machines.

If you want to know what a non-sucky zoom class looks like, start by looking at zoom. If you instead start with your traditional classroom lessons and try to adapt them to zoom, suckiness will ensue. Find out what is uniquely effective about zoom and then build your lesson around those features.

Here’s an example. I recently learned that the whiteboard allows everyone to access it simultaneously. I can’t stress enough how unbelievably cool that is. The first time I made a tiny little check mark during a zoom meeting was the first time I felt like a fully present participant and not just a multi-tasker giving the person talking a fraction of my attention as I’m hidden by the looked-at-but-not-seen weirdness of the videocam.

The pedagogical implications are even cooler. Here are two:

First day of zoom class, students enter to see each of their names typed on the whiteboard in a different color/style with the instruction to “check in” by selecting the same color/style and drawing a check next to their name. That’s now their identifying color/style for the rest of the semester. Whenever I start a new whiteboard for a discussion segment, we’ll begin with an instant “check in” along the margin. Then whatever they place on the whiteboard (a passage from the reading that supports their interpretation, a circle or underline to isolate a phrase from a longer passage that I placed there) everyone recognizes it as belonging to the specific student. And these visual interactions are happening in conjunction with the regular verbal discussion, making the zoom discussion not a second-rate imitation but its own unique animal.

Here’s a goofier micro-lesson for getting everyone’s attention synced. Each student is assigned one facial feature (left ear, mouth, right eyebrow, etc.) and when I say “now,” they draw simultaneously to create a one-second class portrait. I’ll save one portrait from each day (did I mention you can save your whiteboards?) and create a slideshow for the last day of class. This is my own doodle, not a class portrait, but it gives you a tiny hint of the possibilities:

 

There are so many more ways to capitalize on features:

polling (pre-plan a sequence to weave through discussion, starting with a fully anonymous reading quiz)

backgrounds (for homework students select passages—or images if it’s one of my comics classes—from the reading and have the screenshots ready to display behind their heads)

screen sharing (yes, everyone can finally all be one the same page at the same time),

break-out rooms (AKA, “small group work,” a core to my teaching since the early 90s),

I could go on, but you get the point: Build from the tech up.

Which brings me to the second question: should professors decide whether to zoom or not?

My school has created a doctor-signed HR form for professors at high-risk for CV-19 to receive permission to not meet with classes in-person. That’s great, but zoom isn’t primarily an emergency teaching tool. It’s just a teaching tool. Plus CV-19 doesn’t apply only to zoom teaching. Traditional teaching won’t be traditional either.

A CV-19 classroom will require teachers and students to wear masks and to stay six feet apart. How do you get students into small groups while circulating between them to monitor and answer questions? You don’t. Zoom break-out rooms are pedagogically better. If you think running a discussion on zoom is clumsy, how will it go when everyone has to shout from behind masks? I like to pull my classes into tight circles, but the minimum circumference for a fifteen-person CV-19 seminar is 120 feet. Does anyone seriously think that’s better than a grid of unmasked close-ups on a zoom screen?

Happily my school included this statement in our “Returning to the Workplace” guidelines:

“The university recognizes that a hallmark of a W&L education is the personal relationships between faculty to students. These relationships are typically fostered through the in-person classroom experience, and to the extent that students are able to return to campus, in-person instruction is the preferred method of delivery. However, as has always been the case, all faculty may alter their pedagogical methods to include a range of strategies that ensure an interactive and high-quality offering. This flexibility is not altered by these guidelines. If uncertain, faculty should continue to consult with their department head and dean on such approaches.”

Since I’m now vice-head (or what I’ve been calling “helper chair”) of my English department, I invite my colleagues to consult with me if they’re uncertain whether zoom approaches can achieve interactive and high-quality pedagogy better than traditional approaches used in the non-typical and non-preferred constraints of in-person CV-19 classrooms.

But whatever they decide, the decision to zoom or not to zoom is theirs to make.

 

 

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