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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Last week I received a copy of a document titled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L.” It begins:

“Over the last several years, a number of courses have been added to the curriculum which seem of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above. A review of the current catalogue by departments is revealing.”

It then lists twenty courses beginning with: “1. Creating Comics- English Department,” followed by “2. Superheroes (i.e. comic book characters)- English Department.”

Both of those courses are mine.

Creating Comics is a hybrid creative writing and studio arts course that I conceived and co-teach with Leigh Ann Beavers in the W&L Art department. We have offered it during two spring terms, in 2016 and 2018, and we intend to offer it again in 2020. Leigh Ann and I are also under contract with Bloomsbury press to produce a textbook developed from our course. Superheroes was originally an English course that I taught at the request of a group of honors students in 2008, and it is currently the topic of my first-year writing seminar, which I typically teach each spring. Presumably because the document was dated November 2018, it does not include a course I taught this last winter, Introduction to Graphic Novels.

After the course list, the document asks:

“Do we really need classes in comic books with so much great literature to study … Would it not be possible to save money by eliminating some of these courses and eliminating some of the professors who teach them? Such questions should at least be asked and considered.”

I agree that questions should be asked and a wide range of answers considered. This is the core of my teaching philosophy. Students in all three of my courses mentioned above write interpretive questions in response to reading assignments, which then become the focus of discussion during the next class meeting. The open-ended, student-focused approach encourages a wide exploration, which sometimes results in consensus but more often reveals differences of interpretation grounded in textual evidence.

The document’s next two listings, “3. Literature, Race, and Ethnicity- English Department” and “4. Representations of Women, Gender and Sexuality in World Literature- English Dept.,” is more representative of the overall list, drawing the criticism:

“As in many other colleges, many of these courses seem to exist to meet the ever narrowing and increasingly politicized specializations of the professoriate. This is reflected in the increasing number of course which focus on race, gender, class, etc. … Surely, these topics would arise naturally without having whole classes dedicated to them.”

Ironically, I had considered naming my first-year seminar “Race, Class, Gender, and Superheroes,” but decided against it since I have found that those topics indeed do arise naturally. When I last taught the course in fall 2018, I was struck by how consistently my students focused on gender analysis, returning to it even after I attempted to nudge conversation to other, equally important topics.

So while my position in the list’s top two slots appears only to reflect the authors’ concerns about the “trivial” and “inane,” I suspect they would also fault me for what they imagine to be “the espousal of a political agenda.”

All three assumptions are incorrect.

I have written previously about the apolitical nature of my classroom (“How Not to Help Your Tenure Case”), which I will excerpt here:

“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. … 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.”

It’s notable that the list’s top seven slots are from the W&L English department. This is likely related to a statement my department issued in response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2018. As the Washington Post reported:

A month after torch-bearing white supremacists marched at the University of Virginia, some members of the English department at Washington and Lee took their own stand. “This community has profited by slavery,” they wrote online. “We are complicit in its harms.”

The college, they wrote, “is named after two slaveholding generals with powerful legacies. . . . If it were ever right to celebrate the contributions of Robert E. Lee as an educator, that time is past. Lee’s primary association, to many Americans and across the world, is with white supremacy.”

That prompted heated backlash.

The three individuals who wrote and distributed “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L” call themselves the Generals’ Redoubt. According to their vision statement, they are “dedicated to the Restoration and Preservation of the History, Values and Traditions of Washington and Lee University and its Named Founders,” and their mission includes seeking to “prevent further retreat from the University’s history, values and traditions; protect revered campus buildings; and continue to honor the magnificent contributions of its Founders.”

Despite our differences in opinion, I had a pleasant exchange with one of them earlier this year:

Dear Mr. Wooldridge,

I’m not sure why I’m included in your mass email. Could you please explain? Also, it was unclear whether you had the permission of the two authors to forward their emails. Could you please indicate whether you did?

Regardless, I am pleased to see alums concerned about the future of W&L. I share that concern. Our school is in a moment of important transition, and it should be accomplished with the committed help of its extended community.

As far as the specifics of the first letter you forwarded, it’s a little odd to suggest the that hiring committee for the director of institutional history should cease their work after so many months of open effort. W&L makes a great many hires every year. The search for the director of the new learning and development center is happening right now too. By the premise presented in the letter, that search should also be halted–though why is not clear in either case.

Still, despite not presenting a clear line of logic, the core of the letter is expressing concern about the future of W&L and how it will present its history. That is an extremely valid concern. I’m glad you are taking it up with the president and, I assume, also with the board. That is your prerogative and perhaps even your duty as a person deeply invested in W&L. I applaud your commitment.

We may not always agree about future steps, but I hope your organization will express their opinions in a respectful manner while acknowledging that everyone involved, regardless of whether they seek change or continuation of the status quo, does so because W&L is so important to them.

If we all move forward with respect and openness then we move forward together and for the good of W&L.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Chris

He responded:

Professor Gavaler, I have been a part of an interested alumni group headed by Neely Young, Tom Rideout and myself for about 18 months.  Yes I had permission from my cohorts to send the letter to the Washington and Lee community.  If you read carefully the letter concerning Chavis, my signature was adjacent Neely Young’s.  I did not have permission from President Dudley to forward his response to Tom Rideout but he must have understood that we would forward it to others.  I felt an obligation to include his response to our request for purposes of clarification.  I agree along with our alumni group that we need to move forward in a polite and open manner.  I appreciate your comments.

Our group, The Generals’ Redoubt feel obliged to make an effort to communicate with all constituencies within the Washington and Lee community and share our point of view.  We shall continue to communicate to the administration, the Board, and other members of the Washington and Lee community with their permission of course.

Thanks for your response and questions.

Rex Wooldridge, Class ’64

I then responded:

Dear Rex,

Thank you so much for your response. I assumed you had permission for the first letter, though I would feel more comfortable if you also had permission for the second. In the future, you might simply ask Will directly; as you implied, I don’t think he would object.

I also thank you for your polite and open manner. I think that will serve the W&L community well as we all move forward.

I would also like to suggest two principles that I think everyone involved should be able to agree on:

    1. Change for change’s sake is not desirable.
    2. Tradition for tradition’s sake is not desirable.

In short, what W&L does or does not do should be based on a careful and thorough evaluation of all options, with no prejudice for or against any one option in particular.

And so two more specific principles in regard to Robert E. Lee:

    1. Lee should not be vilified.
    2. Lee should not be glorified.

In short, Lee should be presented fully and so without bias in any direction. (I’m reminded of that old Dragnet catch phrase: “Just the facts, ma’am.”)

I sincerely believe that if W&L follows these principles, we will arrive somewhere that all constituents can embrace.

I hope you agree.

Thanks,

Chris

He did not respond.

Reading the most recent mass email and its attached documents, I am doubtful that he and his two retired friends are following the principles I suggested. They seem instead to be proceeding on biased impressions. The less significant ones include the assumptions that the analysis of pop cultural objects (including comic book characters) is frivolous, trivial, or otherwise inane, and that all graphic works are inferior to other significant works of art and literature. I do not feel the need to present counter arguments to either impression here–though I will happily do so if requested.

I am more concerned that these three individuals are making incorrect assumptions about the agenda of faculty members and about Robert E. Lee. Their stated third goal is to “Reverse the recent decision to shield the Recumbent Statue of Lee during University events, return the Peale portrait of Washington to Lee Chapel, and modify the renaming of Robinson Hall.” If these goals were the product of careful research and evaluation, they might be supportable. The authors, however, have not provided a well-reasoned, evidence-based argument for why these goals should be adopted. Though they wish the W&L curriculum to focus on “certain skills and intellectual competencies,” they do not display those skills and competencies themselves.

Given their interest in the Recumbent Statue of Lee and the Peale portrait of Washington, they would benefit from the visual analysis skills central to my comics-based courses. Advocating for “eliminating” a professor is a serious undertaking, but the depth of their displayed research begins and ends with a skimming of department course listings. They pose pointed rhetorical questions without having first sincerely asked and investigated why a course might productively focus on such things as race, gender, and sexuality. Their name (a redoubt is a defensive military fortification) communicates not the openness of inquiry that defines an educational institution such as W&L, but an a priori conclusion that undermines inquiry. By defining themselves as reflexive defenders of Robert E. Lee, they violate one of their own “Mission Themes,” to instill “a balanced and unbiased approach to teaching and learning.”

Finally, they claim to prioritize “opportunities for constructive dialogue,” and yet they did not respond to my last email. They also did not contact me to discuss the nature of my courses before distributing a document to thousands of W&L alums, students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees advocating that those courses and I be eliminated. They deleted me from their distribution list instead. I heard about the “Dumbing Down” list from two former Creating Comics students. I welcome constructive dialogue. I am a founding member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, a local group devoted to building bridges across the partisan divide through meaningful conversation. I would very much like to see such conversation taking place in the extended W&L community. I had hoped the Generals’ Redoubt would include meaningful participants. Instead they are modeling bias, shallow research, inadequate argumentation, and hypocritical rhetoric.

Still, I remain open. Should one of these individuals wish to engage in sincere conversation, my email address is listed on the English department webpage, just a click away from the course listings.

 

[The saga continues here.]

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