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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I turned in my tenure file last Friday. I’ve received enough compliments about my productivity, including from my chair and dean, that I may have some reason for confidence about the research portion of my case. My file includes a range of published works, plus works-in-progress, some book-length. But it does not include the 120,000-word manuscript I started composing early last winter. Almost exactly a year from my review due date, I began devoting an hour of daily writing and research to a project I knew would never help my tenure case.

Dear Bob,

Every day since December 4th, I wrote a letter to Bob Goodlatte, my Congressional Representative, and posted it on my “Dear Bob” blog. I teach creative writing and contemporary fiction, so the daily exercises in political rhetoric and their accumulating real-time history of the Trump presidency are well outside my job description. Even though my provost is a consistent advocate of academic freedom, I’m not sure what could have been a worse use of my limited time.

It was therapeutic at first. Having had some reason for confidence about the presidential portion of the election, I was unprepared for Donald Trump to take office. Writing letters channeled my energies, gave me something specific to focus on. The shortest are single paragraphs, the longest a thousand words. I had assumed I would run out of material, but my congressman provided plenty: his quarter-century in Congress despite running on term limits; his embrace of deficit-expanding tax cuts despite his sponsoring a balanced budget amendment for years; his refusal to allow his House Judiciary Committee to participate in any of the congressional investigations of the Trump administration after vigorously investigating the Obama administration over similar accusation of misconduct. Mr. Goodlatte also attended my school, Washington and Lee University, and opposes the removal of Confederate statues, so I had even more to write about since Charlottesville. Next year he will likely become a household name if the special counsel report justifies impeachment, a process he controls as Judiciary Chair.

When local newspapers and a TV station did features on my letter campaign, I received hate mail accusing me of insanity, criminal intent, professional incompetence, and, of course, subjecting my students to my liberal bias. The last one I was expecting. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Republicans think colleges have a negative effect on the country and 72% of Democrats think they have a positive effect. Dartmouth social science professor Sean Westwood explains the division: “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.”

But it’s one of my ideological beliefs that teachers should not abuse their positions by expressing their personal opinions to students who have no choice but to listen and would be wise to at least feign agreement with the person grading them. I was in high school when John Lennon was murdered, and my P.E. teacher was so opposed to Lennon’s politics that he devoted a period of Health class lecturing about how bad a person Lennon was and why no one should be upset by his death. I wasn’t a particular Lennon fan at the time (I was more upset by Led Zeppelin’s drummer asphyxiating on his own vomit), but I was offended that my teacher felt he had the right to inflict his opinions when the topic was unrelated to our course.

Instead of expressing my opinions, I spend most of my class time encouraging my students to express theirs, and then only on the course-related topics that are the focus of our discussion. I encourage them to support their opinions with evidence. I urge them to disagree and to be persuasive but also to be open to changing their minds when someone else presents ideas and evidence they hadn’t yet considered. Does that make my classroom a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology? Only if Republicans are ideologically opposed to conversation, open-mindedness, and the expectation that opinions must be supported.

Last semester a student in my first-year writing seminar liked to wear a “Make American Great Again” cap to class. I didn’t comment on it. He participated actively, listened closely to others, and enjoyed challenging others’ ideas as well as having his own ideas challenged. One of the hardest workers in the class, he was a gifted writer and achieved one of the highest grades. By the end of the semester, he was considering majoring in English, which I encouraged. I offered to be his advisor, but said he shouldn’t declare his major too soon. Part of the point of attending a small liberal arts college is trying a range of new courses and fields to discover areas of interest and talent you didn’t know you had. At the end of the semester, he told me how much he enjoyed our class and said he hoped to take more classes with me in the future. He also stopped wearing his Trump cap. I never asked why.

Did I indoctrinate him into my ideology? I hope so. I’m also realizing that my letter campaign models that same ideology. Researching and crafting letters requires the same skills I teach in my writing seminar: persuasive argumentation supported by research-based evidence.

In order to have any hope of persuading a conservative of a progressive viewpoint, I cited only Republicans when criticizing positions taken by President Trump. Obviously Democrats are criticizing the President. Why would Goodlatte care? When gathering evidence from news reports, I chose right-leaning publications. That’s because the majority of our mainstream media do have a slight but verifiable left-leaning bias. That’s a far cry from “Fake News,” but it does mean that if you’re a progressive, like me, you are better served by triangulating your news from multiple sources. And if you don’t have time, just read the Wall Street Journal. Like the New York Times, it gets its facts right, but with a slight tilt, and since that tilt is to the right, it protects you from your own left-tilting verification bias.

When I teach my first-year writing seminar again, I’m even considering remodeling it on my letter campaign. After a first assignment testing the bias of multiple media sources, I could have students identify their hometown Representatives and begin amassing voting records on whatever issues most interest them. They would draft and workshop letters, experimenting with a range of rhetorical approaches and testing each for its persuasive effects. And instead of handing in final drafts that only I read, they would mail actual letters, and their Representatives’ staffs would then likely respond with form letters, providing more text to analyze and reasons to write anew.

I stopped writing to Goodlatte last month after he announced he will be retiring after his current term. His staff had responded to roughly one of my every ten emails, before relegating me to a do-not-respond blacklist last summer. Our semester is only twelve weeks, so none of my students would likely achieve that unfortunate distinction. But they would look back over a semester of their letters and, like me, discover they have composed a personal history of a segment of vital national politics. Some may even keep writing after the course is over. If so, it wouldn’t help their grade.

Or their tenure case.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte

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