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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Last winter an alumni group distributed an essay titled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L” to their mailing list. My courses Creating Comics and Superheroes were in the top two slots for courses that the unnamed author considered “of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above.” The author suggested eliminating these and other courses and also “eliminating some of the professors who teach them.” I responded in my blog post “Why I Shouldn’t be Fired for Teaching Comics.”

The author of “Dumbing Down,” Neely Young, emailed me in September with multiple attachments including a “response to your post of May, 2019. As we say, we would have responded sooner but we were not aware of your post.” He added: ” I really think we all should realize that, at this point, any communication between us should be considered as in the public domain. That is, unless both sides agree to confidentiality in advance.”

I wrote back: “I would be happy to sit down and chat. Shall we get coffee some time?”

Neely: “I would be more comfortable meeting with you after you have had a chance to read over all of the material. I think it would make our conversation more productive. I’m not saying that you have to respond to anything which I have written prior to our meeting, although you are free to do so. I’m saying that some of my ideas about how we might move forward in increasing communication between the various parts of the W&L community are sort of embedded in my letter. We can talk further about this when we meet.”

Chris: “I had already read the newsletter and I read your letter to me and the short essay regarding Chavis and Robinson before responding. Since you said you didn’t want “to litigate past differences of opinion but to discuss ways to improve communication,” I didn’t respond to any of the content. I can of course respond to the content in person or by email, but my main interest is in finding common ground and that’s probably done best by sitting down together.”

Neely: “I couldn’t agree with you more. Just let me know when and where you would like to meet.”

We met at Lexington Coffee. Neely emailed afterwards thanking me, saying he “enjoyed our conversation,” and suggesting that we meet again with other members of his alumni group: “I am thinking the focus should be on possible public, on campus meetings to discuss recent developments at the university and its future direction. I am also thinking that it would be good if we could find some topics to discuss initially where compromise or agreement could be reached among the various university constituencies. I welcome your thoughts on this. As I said previously, if you would like to ask another faculty member to accompany you to our next meeting, that would be fine.”

Chris: “I’m glad we met for coffee, and I hope to continue to expand our better understanding of each other. With that goal in mind, will you do me the honor of reading some of my research? I’ve attached two articles that I think might provide some sense of the work I’m doing in relation to your “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” paper.”

Neely: “I will certainly read it, but I am not sure I am qualified to comment on it. I am sure there is something to be learned from any area of study.”

Chris: “As a published historian with UVa Press, you should be more than qualified.”

The essays I gave him were “The Well-born Superhero,” published in the Journal of American Culture, and “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the superhero,” published in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. Both trace the development of the superhero character type through the eugenics movement in early the 20th-century U.S.

Neely contacted me again in October. After describing the Generals Redoubt’s new website, he wrote:

I have now read both of the essays which you sent me, and I am afraid that I am in pretty much the same position that I was before you sent them to me. That is, I have almost no familiarity with the subject/s upon which you are opining and do not feel qualified to comment. I will say that I think your research and writing are excellent and that you are certainly qualified from a scholarly perspective.

This is not the same thing as saying what or what should not be included in the curriculum. But that is a subject for another day. Indeed, I would like to meet with you again at your convenience and would like to bring a friend with me. Barry Brown lives in Lexington and is a former parent. Her family has been involved with Washington and Lee almost since its inception, and she is a member of the Executive Committee of The Generals Redoubt. The main thing I would like to discuss is how we might move forward in setting up some on campus forums, panel discussions, etc. involving various elements of the W&L community. However, I am open to discussing any other issues which you like. I am also open to your bringing someone else with you if you like.

I would also like to say that I have revised my essay on “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” to delete any mention of eliminating faculty positions. This is not my place or concern. Otherwise, the essay is pretty much the same. I will be publishing the revised edition in upcoming material on our website.

Chris:

Good to hear from you. Congratulations on launching the website—I know personally the challenges involved—and I look forward to reading your new essay “Ideological Diversity.” I’m also pleased to hear that you have decided to drop the part about eliminating faculty positions from your “Dumbing Down” essay.

May I ask if my courses will still be featured at the top of the “Dumbing Down” list? While I acknowledge there are some differences between scholarship and teaching, W&L as you know encourages a teacher-scholar model, and my work especially reflects that. The idea for “Superheroes” came from a group of honors students who sought out a professor willing to develop and teach a syllabus on their behalf. When they found me, I had done no research into superheroes or comics, but I said yes, and that has since led to four books, two from the University of Iowa Press  and two from Bloomsbury. I also have a contract under way from Routledge for a fifth.

If you consider my research and writing to be excellent, it would seem odd if you maintained that courses based on that research could be “of dubious academic value,” “trivial,” and “inane” as you previously stated. At that time your opinion was based only on the names of the courses—which is why I accurately accused you of conducting “shallow research” last spring on my blog. Having read the two essays I forwarded, you now know at least some elements of actual content covered in the courses. When we met for coffee last month, you seemed like a reasonable person, and so I find it difficult to believe that you could still characterize my teaching as “dumbing down” W&L’s curriculum. Am I mistaken?

Neely:

Thanks for your prompt reply. It is my opinion that the courses which should or should not be offered at W&L is a discussion we can save for another time. I am thinking that this can be a part of the public forums which could take place on campus. When I say a part, I mean that there could be a broad conversation about what constitutes a quality liberal arts education. As I said, what I would like to do is set up another meeting with you and my colleague, Barry Brown, to talk about the possibility of setting up these public forums and discussing what topics might be discussed at these forums.

Chris:

I agree course offerings is a general topic that can be discussed in a public forum, but my concern is more specific and immediate. Honestly, I’m startled that you want to include “Dumbing Down” on the website. I thought you’d let that one quietly go. It is not very good. I don’t mean that I disagree with its opinions (which, as you know, I do); I mean its opinions are poorly presented. I disagree with opinions in your other essays, but they don’t suffer from the same weaknesses. Your writing in your summer newsletter, for example, might earn a B in my Writing 100, but “Dumbing Down” wouldn’t receive a passing grade. This is because, as I explained in my blog post, it shows “bias, shallow research, inadequate argumentation, and hypocritical rhetoric.”

You objected to that assessment when you wrote me last month, implying it was based on my disagreeing with your opinions. I disagree with many of your opinions, but the assessment applies only to “Dumbing Down” for the reasons I carefully detailed. You also wrote: “I have read your arguments for maintaining courses in Comic Books and Superheroes, and, although I appreciate your perspective, I am not convinced by your arguments.” But I explicitly stated: “I do not feel the need to present counter arguments.” Since I didn’t make any arguments for maintaining my courses, it is not possible for you to have been convinced or not convinced by them.

That you could imagine that you read such arguments does not reflect well on your reading skills, but I have a much larger concern. You have now read two of my “excellent” essays that emerged from my superhero and comics courses, but you still intend to keep those courses on your “Dumbing Down” list, continuing to call them inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value.

You also expect me to help you organize campus forums and panel discussions with faculty. To do that, I would have to assure my colleagues that you are a reasonable person who is sincerely open to meaningful conversation. But a reasonable person would not draw conclusions about courses based only on their titles. A reasonable person would also not continue to malign a professor after acknowledging the excellence of his research and writing.

You said in your letter that “we will have to agree to disagree.” I had hoped that we could instead develop common ground and bring opposing sides of the W&L community into better understanding and compromise. But if you can’t change your stance about the comparatively inconsequential issue of my courses, then continuing our conversations seems pointless.

Neely:

I do not intend to argue with you about all of these points. It seems to me you are getting into a lot of semantics here. For example, when I said that I was not convinced by your argument, perhaps I should just have said that I am not convinced at this point that such courses should be taught. What difference does it make how it is stated? At this point, I am still not convinced that such course should be taught. But I would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree. For example, I can see a series of public forums taking place on a series of topics such as ideological diversity, curricular matters, the legacy of Lee, freedom of speech and expression, etc. You use a lot of strong language like saying that I lack “reading skills” and am attempting to “malign” you, that I am not a reasonable person, etc. It is almost as if you are seeking excuses for not having another meeting. If you would like to meet with me again to discuss how we might move forward in creating a dialogue between faculty, students, alums, and other members of the W&L community, I am glad to do so. If you do not, then I suppose that is the end of our conversation. However, I will note that you are the one ending this conversation, not me. We will continue to work with others to create dialogue among the various elements of the university.

Chris:

You said you “would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree.” I shared my articles with you in the hope that we would come to that sort of agreement. I thought that because your initial claim was made in ignorance (I mean that literally not pejoratively), once you learned something about my actual course content, your opinions would evolve. You said you’re “still not convinced that such course should be taught,” but there’s quite a distance between that position and your continuing claim that my courses are inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value. In what sense are you not disparaging me? Why do you object to my “strong language” but not your own?

You said you want my help organizing “public forums” on topics including “curricular matters.” Why do you want to discuss these matters publicly but not privately with me? My goal is to bridge differences between opposing viewpoints in our community. If the forums would help achieve that, then I would support them. But your emails suggest that you are not interested in bridging differences but only in maintaining and more widely espousing intractable opinions.

Looking over your previous email, I hear the unpleasant echo of a reading quiz where a student creates the impression of having done the homework but on rereading I see there is not a single reference to content of any kind. I selected those two articles because their arguments are historical, and you are a historian and so should “feel qualified to comment.” How is it possible to feel unqualified to comment on my essays to me privately and yet continue to feel qualified to comment to your 8,000-member mailing list on my courses (about which you know only their titles)?

Instead of taking insult at your “Dumbing Down” essay, I have been trying to engage with you personally. The so-called inanity of my courses seemed like an ideal side topic because it has nothing to do with the main focus of the Generals Redoubt and so I thought with a little mutual effort and openness we would arrive at a better understanding, one that could be a stepping stone to wider growth. You said to me over our first coffee that your essay “wasn’t personal,” meaning you had no idea who taught my courses when you wrote it. You no longer have that luxury. We know each other. We sat and talked for 90 minutes. That should have been the first step toward something better.

And perhaps it still will be. I am happy to meet with you again, and with Barry Brown (I hope she has made a full recovery from her surgery). But please understand that my goal is actual conversation. I have no interest in helping you build a soap box to espouse opinions that you maintain in the face of greater counter evidence. That is my working definition of “unreasonable.”

Neely:

Here is what I am willing to do; I hope you are willing to do the same. If not, I will understand. I am certainly willing to meet with you again. I am willing to discuss further with you the topics which you raise in the email you sent to me, but I am not willing to do so ad nauseum. It is possible that at the end of the day, we will still disagree on some of these issues. Even if we do, I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus and involve people with different points of view. You may see it as a “soapbox”, but I see it as an opportunity for all sides to discuss issues which I feel were not adequately discussed before the issuance of the History Commission report and the directive of the Board in fall, 2018.

I will say that my language was not directed at you personally, but at the course which you are teaching as well as some other courses. I do not see this as disparaging you. I am interested in a broader discussion of what a quality liberal arts education should look like. The question of which courses should be taught is a part of that discussion but not the only part. I am willing to change my language from “trivial and frivolous” to something like of “questionable academic value” I say this because this is how I feel at this time. You say that my emails indicate that I may not be interested in bridging differences. I am interested in bridging differences where I can, but, frankly, I am more interested in the truth and in helping to make Washington and Lee the best place it can be. It may be that in this process, some people’s feelings may be hurt. That is not my intention nor the intention of the Generals Redoubt; neither is it our primary concern.

I suggest than we meet we have a discussion on how we can do more to bridge differences while still maintaining our particular points of view. I suggest we spend as much time as possible focusing on how we can set up public forums where all of these issues can be discussed among the various elements of the W&L community.

Chris:

As I said, I’m happy to meet. Feel free to suggest a time.

I’m glad you’re removing “trivial and frivolous,“ but you continue to miss the key question: on what basis are you making any judgement? If you instead wrote that my courses were excellent (as you said of my research and writing), that statement would be equally uninformed. You only know the course titles. You wrote in “Dumbing Down”: “Do we really need classes in comic books with so much great literature to study?” Creating Comics is not focused on the study of literature because Creating Comics is not a literature course. You would know that if you had done even the very most basic step of research and read the course description. It is a joint creative writing and studio arts course co-taught with a drawing and printmaking professor. Do you know literally anything about drawing and printmaking? Are you also unaware that Superheroes is a section of Writing 100 and so also not a literature course? Writing instruction is an enormous, decades-old field of study. Have you read literally anything in the field? You said you don’t want to discuss these issues ad nauseam, but you have yet to take even a first, rudimentary step.

My hope was that you would demonstrate intellectual curiosity about things that you know nothing about and yet feel qualified to judge publicly and loudly. In doing so you would demonstrate your ability to learn. Obviously, my courses have nothing to do with the History Commission report and the Board’s directives. If you are incapable of engaging meaningfully with the content of my work, how can I hope that you will do any better on issues of actual significance to our shared community? Your “truth” regarding my courses is based in willful ignorance. You said, “I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus.” This is why.

Please demonstrate that you are an individual capable of open-minded conversation who cares more about learning and bridging differences than creating a platform for espousing uninformed opinions.

Neely:

Thanks for your response. I have spoken to Barry Brown, and we can meet with you any time on Thursday or on Friday morning. Why don’t you pick the place and time? We can meet  with you anywhere that you feel comfortable. Perhaps Barry can help us bridge our differences. I think we can discuss all of the things which you mention at our meeting.

We have our second coffee scheduled for later this week.

Wish me luck.

[The saga continues here.]

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