Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Teaching and Thirteen Reasons Why

I've been teaching high school since September 2001.
I read a lot of YA novels, usually on student recommendations- we have independent reading regularly, so they know I read, and like recs.
I remember when Thirteen Reasons Why came out in 2007, and a student asking if I'd read it, and them recommending it. I vaguely remember saying I'd check it out.
I don't remember really thinking much of it afterwards.

This year, when the Netflix series was released, it was a totally different experience.
It was different in a lot of ways and although there is no specific order, it was different for the following reasons.
  • I lost a student this year. And while I cannot speak definitively, I believe I lost him to suicide. When students die in a car wreck or due to illness the school tells you. When a student commits suicide, you hear nothing. 
    • In fact, it's more than nothing. It's whatever is beyond absence. People assume talking about suicide causes suicide, talk of suicide clusters gets mentioned. Schools and districts worry about litigation, closing ranks, doing nothing out of fear.
  • I had an anonymous student write a suicide note and place it in my inbox on my desk at school.
  • This 8 June marks the one year anniversary of me almost committing suicide.
So this is the world, my world, that Th1rteen R3asons Why came into.

Students talked about it some. I could tell when they'd watched it, how far they'd gotten, as I listened to their conversations before class and in between activities. I made reference to it when I taught Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech this past April, explaining to my students that it was his "Thirteen reasons why not..." which they liked.
I sat in a department meeting where teachers (wrongly) mentioned it, and argued that it glorified suicide and was dangerous. The end decision seeming to be that we could have it on classroom library shelves, we wouldn't censor it, but we couldn't talk about it, or teach it.

And this is the problem.

When my student died. When he took his own life, we were left in the dark. We were given a bland, vague, statement to read to our students about seeking counseling.
When the student left the note in my inbox, I forwarded it to counseling in the hopes they could ID the handwriting/drawing. They contacted admin. They called every student I taught. They were vague to the parents and the kids. Counselors came to only one of my classes, made murmurings about there being help, and handed me a stack of contact number cards for the suicide hotline. My kids, confused, asked what it was all about. I told them.

Then I did what no one else apparently was doing. I told them the truth. I told them why admin had called all their homes. I told them that I understood, deeply, intimately, what it meant to feel like there was no hope, no way out. And I told them too that despite all that, despite what they thought of me, or the class, I loved every single one of them. That I was always there for them. That they could always reach out to me, that I would defend them to my dying breath.

I was there for them.

I can't tell you whether they heard me.
I can't tell you if it made a difference.
I don't know if I saved anyone. If I kept anyone from doing anything. From making horrible mistakes.

I can tell you that I had students text me their problems, asking for help.
I had students talk to me more.
I got a lot of hugs at the end of the year.
A lot of students wrote on their letter to future students that they, the future students, needed to know I cared, and that I would be there for them.

So maybe.
Maybe not.

The student this year was not the first student I lost, not to suicide, not to accident, not to tragedy. It never gets easier.

So I put off watching Th1rteen R3asons Why. Because it had been a hard year. Because I needed to wait. But this past week I finally sat down and watching 3-4 episodes a night, worked my way through the series.

I have issues with the show, some of which are in the source material. Part of it is that the story depends on Clay's point of view, and I have inherent issues with men being the mediators of women's stories. There's also the issue that if you move the series a bit narratively it's the story of a stalker, a crush, who thinks he's entitled to a woman's story.

But, despite what my colleagues think, the series does not glorify suicide. It does not glamorize it. It does not present depression, or teenage life, of bullying in any way that is not truthful.

What it is is honest.

Last summer, I was told through email, on 31 May that I would not be defending my dissertation. Not graduating.
And I spent the next week thinking through the logistics of killing myself. How would I do it? What were the details?
I also spent that week screaming into the void, begging for help.
I cut off all my hair, from below my butt to almost crew cut.
I got a semi-colon tattoo, on my hand, for all to see.
And I got nothing as a response.
It wasn't just that no one cared.
No one noticed.
Not. One. Person.

Not my then dissertation director. Despite Skype calls where I sobbed I didn't think I could do any of this anymore (their response was: I'm sorry you feel that way.)
Not my school.
Not my social media feed.
Not my family.

No body.

I was totally on my own. From 31 May, through most of the summer, I woke up every morning and tried to find a reason not to kill myself.

I tried to talk to people in my program. I sat in offices. I tried to talk. I tried to talk on Twitter. Nothing worked. No one noticed. Nothing changed.

Most days the only reason I came up with was that no one would notice for days, of weeks, and even then, probably only if Nehi barked incessantly about not being fed. That's if I left the door open to outside so people could hear her. And in my neighborhood, would people even pay attention? Who would respond? Who would care for her? Where would she end up?

I am alive today because I have a dog.
That is literally the only reason why.
In the series, Hannah makes a series of tapes, thirteen, that detail, and blame, all the people who failed her. She traces out all the little moves that led to where she was. All the people that saw her (or did not) and did nothing. On her last tape she talks about giving life one more chance. On trying to believe in people, in the concept of help, one more time.
Yet even then, everyone fails Hannah.
Everyone who should have been paying attention, who should have cared, didn't. Or did, and fell short.
She kills herself because she believed that no one cared.

I didn't kill myself for the same reason. I looked around and realized that the imagined comradery of social media was an illusion. That no one was coming to help. That if I wanted to be saved, to live, I was going to have to save myself.

So this is the world I watched Th1rteen R3asons Why in.

My life is not better than it was a year ago.
Nothing is significantly different.
I still teach high school.
I have written a whole new dissertation. But it's currently mired in committee revisions, so it seems like the same purgatory/limbo I was in last summer.
I still struggle with depression and anxiety.
I still believe I am alone.

Many days, though less than it used to be, I am only alive because I have Nehi.

But I do think I see my students a little more clearly. I am more willing to be honest with them. Transparent. I don't talk about my depression or my anxiety, but they can all see my tattoo. They listen I think when I tell them I understand how hard it can be because they know I don't lie to them. I am transparent about growing up poor, and struggling, and how I can understand all the things that can intrude on school, and doing well, and even getting through the day.
I think it makes me a better teacher.
I know it makes me a better person.

And if nothing else, I hope they believe me when I say that I love them. That I am there for them. That I would do everything in my power that I could to help them. Always.

Th1rteen R3asons Why doesn't glorify depression. It does not glamorize suicide. What it does do is present a clear and accurate picture of what these things are like. It puts a very difficult topic right in front of your face. Where you can't ignore it. And it demands that you acknowledge it. That you talk about it. That you stop ignoring it and hoping it will go away. That you no longer turn away from it, or the people who suffer from it.

We need to listen to what Th1rteen R3asons Why is saying.
We need to hear.

Because people's lives depend on it, many of them young, fragile, beautiful lives.
Lives that I very desperately want to see continue.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Summer Goals- #ShiftPerspective

1. This is one of my favorite scenes in a movie. For lots of reasons, but mainly bc it emphasizes how important it is to
Image result for Dead poets society stand on desks 
2. Last Spring I went back to teaching high school, so I backed off Twitter  
3. But as the election came around, I drifted back, finding community, finding solace  
4. Before the election, I used Twitter to extend my scholarly/work community. I connected with global scholars & Ss  
5. We shared our latest projects. Cool articles we found. Manuscript images. Asked questions. Crowd sourced.  
6. We weren't robots- while most I know used it mainly for work, we also shared walks, hikes, kittehs, doggos.  
7. was a real community to me, although so were my early modernist, fan-fic, & pop-culture folks.  
8. I got book chapters, articles, help, conferences, cool ideas, and most of all support, from these communities.  
9. But things have changed since November. Because it's all so much worse than even we thought it would be.  
10. "Dumpster fire" doesn't even cover it. The levels of hate, racism, misogyny jump exponentially. Daily.
11. Now we live in fear of what global catastrophe happens if we take the dog for a walk. Or sit down to dinner.  
12. During Inauguration (when I didn't know how bad this was all going to get), I started following more news, politicians  
13. My TF was always an odd mix- climate scientists, snakes, water scholars, medievalists, historians, pop-culture.  
14. Now, there were news outlets, pundits, talking heads, politicians. It seemed like the only way to hear the truth  
15. Mainstream news was too far behind, bowing to their corporate gods, were already to blame for normalizing 45  
16. The power of social media, of not letting people get away with shit, has been instrumental in even holding this line.  
17. But, as many of people have written about, long term hyper awareness, fear, always being on, is harmful.  
18. We may be sleeping less. Eating more crap. Constantly worried. We may be less productive. Not focusing.  
19. Back in January (and yes, it's like dog years) I started to see this in small measure.  
20. I tried to post one medieval, early modern, pop-culture story for every 45 dumpster fire.  
21. The problem is, we were all so overwhelmed, it got harder and harder to FIND these stories. We collectively gave up.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Devil is in the Details- The Devil's Rhetorical Purpose

I was having a hard time writing the conclusion to my dissertation on the English devil until I read a couple of articles from the Public Medievalist on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages. It made me realize that we still demonize others and in the world of Brexit and Trump, there are nationalistic tones to this. We demonize Others as a way of defining ourselves- we are THIS because we're not THAT.
That's my dissertation.
And the conclusion was easy to write from there.

Yesterday I had this conversation on Twitter:

Just as demonizing enemies to define your own national identity is not new, neither is invoking the devil in politics. In the mid 1600s, as Cromwell and the Republicans demonized Charles and the Royalist, they did the devil to do it. While it would initially appear that the devil disappears in literature during the English Civil War until the Restoration, he really just moves into politics. 

The devil, and his image, are used as a rhetorical shorthand. If the English devil is invoked on the title page of a pamphlet along with Cromwel and the idea of witchcraft, that's a complete story right there.
The audience doesn't need more explanation. By associating Cromwell with witchcraft and the devil, he is demonized, set apart from good Englishmen and women. A threat to not just the souls of the people, but the nation.

The same occurs when the devil is associated with parliament, as happened in 1648. Parliament was not just constructed as demonic because it historically is, but also because it worked counter to the interests of true Englishmen.

If we look at the number of pamphlets published during a section of the early modern period, and then look at the number of pamphlets that invoke the devil, some interesting patterns emerge.

Year and Number of Pamphlets Published According to EEBO and Stationers' Register (created from my own research)

From 1588 to 1636 there is a steady, but small increase in the annual press output with the number of texts barely rising above five hundred in 1638. In 1639 these numbers skyrocket producing over four thousand texts. From there the English Civil War can be read against the number of texts produced; there is a spike to three thousand texts in 1648 in anticipation of Charles I’s execution in 1649, and another spike in 1660 with the Restoration (Raymond Figure 1). The next spikes don’t come until the Popish Plot in 1678 and the Irish Plot in 1680 (Raymond 346)—both events that were viewed through a 1641 lens supported by the appearance of recycled pamphlets (Raymond 355). If we plot the occurrence of these pamphlets along a timeline we see a small spike in 1592, 1606, 1612, 1615, 1630-1, 1635 with the largest spikes in 1641 and 1642. Then we return to smaller spikes in 1648-9, 1652-3, 1655, 1657, and 1659-60. These spikes coincide with major events in English history such as the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Puritan emigration to the American colonies, major events in the English Civil War, and famous witchcraft trials such as the Pendle trials. From this we can conclude that traumatic events, events that created conflict or had a long reaching impact had a direct impact on pamphlet culture. As events unfolded that affected the lives of the common people the English folkloric devil and pamphlets became the vehicle through which fears, anxieties, and concerns over these events were expressed.

Recycled texts and images present new perspectives on current events while invoking previous arguments. “Just as the pamphlets celebrating the Restoration had whitewashed the complexities of the preceding years, so the pamphlets around the year 1680 reinvented the previous two decades” (Raymond 355). In order to understand these recycled images then we need to understand the current and past uses. Statistics illustrate that moments of anxiety and tension produce more texts. There are also similarities in the types of events that produce spikes in production. These similarities also contribute to the reasons pamphlets were recycled; if a pamphlet dealt with the same issues and had already proven its popularity then it was economically beneficial to just recycle the imagery and argument of past pamphlets. The “Revolution of 1688-9 provided an ideologically febrile moment for recycling and appropriation” (Raymond 367). The recycling of certain texts also highlights what images and topics spoke to the common people, capturing their imagination and representing their feelings.
        Pamphlets didn’t just reflect issues of the time they influenced people and events. “Pamphlets played their part in the return of monarchy to Britain in 1660” because “it was pamphlets that tuned and untuned the affections of the people” (Raymond 323). After the Restoration England saw another milestone for change in English print culture, with a widening divide between publishers who dealt with the “scholarly and elite end of the market” versus those who “dealt in topic and occasional works including pamphlets and newspapers” (Raymond 327). The Restoration saw the reopening of theatres in 1660, and a revival in literature production. In 1667 the publication of Paradise Lost, and the Second Dutch War, revisited issues and concerns from the English Civil War. The years between this and the end of the Restoration with James II in 1688 means that these echoes from the English Civil War, with similar fears, anxieties and desires, resulted in recycled pamphlets. Once again the pamphlet becomes the genre of the people, as the need for a public voice arises.
        Out of the two hundred and fifteen pamphlets that met my criteria of invoking the devil’s name in the title we can identify several subtopics: religion, including sermons; politics; ballads, many of which contain images; the supernatural, including witches; and specific figures; in particular Robert the Devil. There is also a small set of wills and testaments published in pamphlet format.” While spellings differ, he is most often named as some variation of “devil” with some pairings with Sathan, Lucifer, Plato, and serpents.

Distribution of Pamphlet Topics (created from my own research)
 Religious pamphlets invoked the name of the devil to demonize roundheads, the Pope, Roman Catholics in general, as well as Jews although not as often as we’d think given their long-standing connection to the English folkloric devil. Anti-Catholic rhetorics built on narratives after the Reformation that demonized Catholicism and criticized popishness, which also connects to the criticisms of ritual seen in the witchcraft and supernatural themed pamphlets. By far the largest group of pamphlets were ones that specifically demonized Quakers and Ranters. In both religious and political pamphlets, the devil is mentioned along with Sin, Error, and the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Given the tensions of the English Civil War it’s not surprising that the devil is often associated with Parliament, Cavaliers, named as a traitor, and associated with the concepts of war and rebellion. The devil’s identification with discourse and dialogue in pamphlet titles references the devil’s ability to convince and tempt as well as his ties to written argument and print culture all of which are key elements of the figure.  Out of these records, eleven were plays, such as The White Devil, The Devil is an Asse, or The Merry Devil of Edmonton.

           There are several gaps in topics covered by these pamphlets including how witches are dealt with, pamphlets about New World colonies, and connections between the resurgences of plague, the Great Fire and the devil. While forty-two pamphlets deal with witches and the supernatural the rhetoric is not what we see in other texts that deal with witches and witchcraft (For more on this see Michael Bailey’s Battling Demons : Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (2003) or J.A Sharpe’s Witchcraft in early modern England (2001). The visual rhetoric of racialized and sexualized difference that we associate with witchcraft is absent. The women are presented as Othered by their association with the devil but the misogyny is missing as is any mention of pacts as a form of gaining power. Familiars rarely appear and there are few mentions of the devil and exorcism. There was also less use of the actual image of the devil than I expected with only thirteen pamphlets featuring cover art.

From left to right, top to bottom: Cover art for News from Scotland (1592), The English Usurer (1634), News from Hell (1642), A Delicate, Damnable Dialogue (1642), Plutoes Remembrance (1642), and The Snare of the Devil (1658)
By the early modern period the characterization of the English folkloric devil has coalesced. Physically he was shown as dark, usually black in color, with animal qualities such as fur, horns, ears, claws, and a tail. He is sometimes shown with batwings. Part of the reason why invoking the devil’s name and image works rhetorically is because the English people knew what he looked like and how he acted. Publishers depended on known iconography to make cover art work towards commercial interests, “Visual representation of their pamphleteering activities accompanied this self-conscious use of the printed medium” (Raymond 228). There are several recurring iconographies that are connected to the English folkloric devil tradition; Jews, Catholics, specifically Jesuits (as seen in Gyles Gdhed’s The pycture of the Devell and the pope (1562) and Roger Mitchell’s The Celestiall Publican the Vitious Courtier The Jesuite and the Divelle (1630)), the hellmouth, dogs, and witches all appear on cover art. Pamphlet imagery of the devil uses recognizable variations of the English folkloric devil. Four out of the eleven images feature a dark colored devil while the rest show a similar physical shape only not filled in which could have been a result of the practical consideration of wanting a clear image for printing production.
The devil works rhetorically because we know what he is. We know how he functions. He leads people astray, he tempts them, he lies, he deceives. Therefore people who are associated with him also have these traits. So far, the devil, and demonizing others, has mostly been used by those in power- Donald Trump, the Brexit arguments. Yet, the tide is starting to turn it seems. News outlets are still spewing the hate started by these campaigns, demonizing Others- refugees, Muslims, women. But a quick search for the devil in recent headlines shows that more and more Trump is the devil.

Given the history of the devil's rhetoric, the brand of the devil is a hard one to overcome. One can only hope that as Trump is constructed as a devil, the people stand on the side of righteousness.

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