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Essay on the experience of teaching 'Fun Home,' and why the graphic novel is ideal for college students

Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home has received critical raves. A musical adaptation has become a Broadway smash. Despite these successes, some students in Duke University’s incoming class refused to read Fun Home when it was placed on their recommended summer reading list. Citing the book’s acceptance of lesbian identity, these students said they believe that exposing themselves to Bechdel’s story will violate their Christian morals.

As a professor who has taught Fun Home in his classes for years, I would advise these students to rethink their positions. Most of my students who have engaged with Fun Home find many connections to Bechdel’s autobiography and are moved by it. Although her story may be unfamiliar, her work has much to offer, both emotionally and educationally.

Fun Home is on the syllabus of a course titled the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where I teach. All our first-year students take the course simultaneously, grouped into classes of approximately 16, each group with a different professor. They read the same books at the same time, write papers with the same deadlines and so on. The course provides students the opportunity to explore the human experience from a myriad of perspectives. In their first semester, they read work by authors such as Plato, Galileo and Descartes. Students ponder and discuss the course’s three main questions from the perspectives of these different authors: (1) What does it mean to be human? (2) What is the universe and how do we fit into it? (3) How should we live our lives? The college is rightly proud of this course, as it is a fine example of a liberal arts education, and I am happy to be a participant in it.

Fun Home is the first text of the second semester, a semester that also includes Freud, Marx and the Declaration of Independence. Bechdel’s book focuses on the author’s coming to terms with being a lesbian, dealing with the revelation of her father’s homosexuality and discovering the true nature of their “entwined stories.” It gives the second semester of the course a contemporary start and allows the students to view the CIE questions in fresh ways. The course is discussion based and students are encouraged to debate opposing viewpoints respectfully, to shape reasoned arguments with strong points of view and to learn from diversity of opinion. Fun Home provides excellent material for the students to talk about themes of identity, family, home and growing up.

Fun Home, as a college text, has experienced controversy even before the Duke students’ rejection. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut funding to the College of Charleston because of its plan to place Bechdel’s book on a freshmen recommended reading list. State Representative Garry R. Smith said he believes that the memoir is inappropriate for students because it “graphically shows lesbian acts” and is “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

I am proud that Ursinus chose Fun Home as a central text for our common course and that we did not shy away from it because of its controversial history in academia. In my experience, working with the text in the classroom has been educative and productive. The character of Alison, as presented in Bechdel’s witty and distinctive illustrations, starts as naïve and feeling limited. As she matures, she forges her identity, diverges from her parents and makes her mark in the world. Our 18-year-old students grapple with similar issues. They easily relate to Alison in a variety of ways. Many of the students at Ursinus come from small communities in Pennsylvania, just like Alison Bechdel. They read about a young woman whose world is increasingly becoming wider and more varied at just the moment when the same is happening to them. The author’s themes resonate with all the students regardless of their sexuality, religion or cultural background. Bechdel is a canny writer whose specific experiences translate well to a universal audience.

I have prepared myself each semester for student objections. There is a controversial panel in the book which depicts an intimate sexual moment from Bechdel’s college days. Instead of ignoring it, I have met the subject head-on and asked my students, “Do you believe, in context, that this illustration is pornographic?” In the multiple times I have raised this question, not one student has been offended by the image. These are 18-year-olds. Burgeoning sexuality is nothing new to them. Bechdel shares her story from a young person’s perspective and the students easily relate to her personal sexual explorations.

If students in my class were to refuse to read the book altogether, I would urge them to reconsider. Yes, they may find the story alien and opposed to their morality, but, as college students, they should embrace these differing views. Exposure will help them to understand the world better and to strengthen their own opinions. As a college community, we should not shy away from difficult or complex points of view. Ursinus’s CIE students have read sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, objectionable by anyone’s standards. Being shielded from offensive or outrageous material does not make it disappear. If students want to navigate the world after graduation, they need to expose themselves to the variety of human experience while in the safety of their college campus.

Objectors to Fun Home are being reductive when they focus solely on the memoir’s frank presentation of sexuality. Fun Home is so much more. In the right atmosphere, this book allows young people to open up about their own lives and to share their struggles. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? These questions go from the abstract to the relevant when our CIE students discuss Fun Home in the classroom.

Alison Bechdel’s story will resonate with anyone who is grown up or is growing up. It is my sincere hope that the controversies surrounding the book will not stop it from being included on college reading lists. As our Ursinus students know, Bechdel is a wise teacher with much to teach all of us.

Domenick Scudera is professor of theater at Ursinus College.

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Review of Jacques Le Goff, 'Must We Divide History Into Periods?'

George Orwell opened one of his broadcasts on the BBC in the early 1940s by recounting how he’d learned history in his school days. The past, as his teachers depicted it, was “a sort of long scroll with thick black lines ruled across it at intervals,” he said. “Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a ‘period,’ and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before.”

The thick black lines were like borders between countries that didn’t know one another’s languages. “For instance,” he explained, “in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main. There was another very thick black line drawn at the year 1700. After that it was the Eighteenth Century, and people suddenly stopped being Cavaliers and Roundheads and became extra-ordinarily elegant gentlemen in knee breeches and three-cornered hats … The whole of history was like that in my mind -- a series of completely different periods changing abruptly at the end of a century, or at any rate at some sharply defined date.”

His complaint was that chopping up history and simplistically labeling the pieces was a terrible way to teach the subject. It is a sentiment one can share now only up to a point. Orwell had been an average student; today it would be the mark of a successful American school district if the average student knew that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages, much less that it started around 1500. (A thick black line separates his day and ours, drawn at 1950, when television sales started to boom.)

Besides, the disadvantages of possessing a schematic or clichéd notion of history are small by contrast to the pleasure that may come later, from learning that the past was richer (and the borders between periods more porous) than the scroll made it appear.

Must We Divide History Into Periods? asked Jacques Le Goff in the title of his last book, published in France shortly before his death in April 2014 and translated by M. B. DeBevoise for the European Perspectives series from Columbia University Press. A director of studies at L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Le Goff was a prolific and influential historian with a particular interest in medieval European cities. He belonged to the Annales school of historians, which focused on social, economic and political developments over very long spans of time -- although his work also exhibits a close interest in medieval art, literature and philosophy (where changes were slow by modern standards, but faster than those in, say, agricultural technique).

Le Goff’s final book revisits ideas from his earlier work, but in a manner of relaxed erudition clearly meant to address people whose sense of the past is roughly that of young Orwell. And in fact it is that heavy mark on the scroll at the year 1500 -- the break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance -- that Le Goff especially wants the student to reconsider. (I say “student” rather than “reader” because time with the book feels like sitting in a lecture hall with a memorably gifted teacher.)

He quotes one recent historian who draws the line a little earlier, with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492: “The Middle Ages ended, the modern age dawned, and the world became suddenly larger.” Le Goff is not interested in the date but in the stark contrast that is always implied. Usually the Middle Ages are figured as “a period of obscurity whose outstanding characteristic was ignorance” -- happily dispelled by a new appreciation for ancient, secular literature and a sudden flourishing of artistic genius.

Calling something “medieval” is never a compliment; the image that comes to mind is probably that of a witch trial. By contrast, “Renaissance” would more typically evoke a page from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. Such invidious comparison is not hard to challenge. Witch trials were rare in the Middle Ages, while the Malleus Maleficarum appeared in “the late fifteenth century,” Le Goff notes, “when the Renaissance was already well underway, according to its advocates.”

Given his expertise on the medieval city -- with its unique institutional innovation, the university -- Le Goff makes quick work of demolishing the notion of the Middle Ages having a perpetually bovine and stagnant cultural life. The status of the artist as someone “inspired by the desire to create something beautiful” who had “devoted his life to doing just this” in pursuit of “something more than a trade, nearer to a destiny,” is recognized by the 13th century. And a passage from John of Salisbury describes the upheaval underway in the 12th century, under the influence of Aristotle:

“Novelty was introduced everywhere, with innovations in grammar, changes in dialectic, rhetoric declared irrelevant and the rules of previous teachers expelled from the very sanctuary of philosophy to make way for the promulgation of new systems …”

I can’t say that the name meant anything to me before now, but the entry on John of Salisbury in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes it sound as if Metalogicon (the work just quoted) was the original higher ed polemic. It was “ostensibly written as a defense of the study of logic, grammar and rhetoric against the charges of the pseudonymous Cornificius and his followers. There was probably not a single person named Cornificius; more likely John was personifying common arguments against the value of a liberal education. The Cornificians believe that training is not relevant because rhetorical ability and intellectual acumen are natural gifts, and the study of language and logic does not help one to understand the world. These people want to seem rather than to be wise. Above all, they want to parlay the appearance of wisdom into lucrative careers. John puts up a vigorous defense of the need for a solid training in the liberal arts in order to actually become wise and succeed in the ‘real world.’”

That's something an Italian humanist might write four hundred years later to champion “the new learning” of the day. And that is no coincidence. Le Goff contends that “a number of renaissances, more or less extensive, more or less triumphant,” took place throughout the medieval era -- an elaboration of the argument by the American historian Charles H. Haskins in The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927), a book that influenced scholars without, as Le Goff notes, having much effect on the larger public. The Renaissance, in short, was a renaissance -- one of many -- and in Le Goff’s judgment “the last subperiod of a long Middle Ages.”

So, no bold, clean stroke of the black Magic Marker; more of a watercolor smear, with more than one color in the mix. Le Goff treats the Middle Ages as having a degree of objective reality, insofar as certain social, economic, religious and political arrangements emerged and developed in Europe over roughly a thousand years.

At the same time, he reminds us that the practice of breaking up history into periods has its own history -- deriving, in its European varieties, from Judeo-Christian ideas, and laden with ideas of decline or regeneration. “Not only is the image of a historical period liable to vary over time,” he writes, “it always represents a judgment of value with regard to sequences of events that are grouped together in one way rather than another.”

I'm not entirely clear how, or if, he reconciled the claim to assess periodization on strictly social-scientific grounds with its status as a concept with roots in the religious imagination, but it's a good book that leaves the reader with interesting questions.

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Article defending writing program association infuriates many of its members

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Essay defending association is denounced as belittling diversity concerns and promoting stereotypes.

Study finds men are more likely than women to engage in self-citation

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Study finds male scholars are more likely than female scholars, across disciplines, to engage in self-citation. Does this give men a leg up in academic promotions?

Tuition-free online university sees newfound growth and attention

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Unconventional online university is growing and looking to focus on helping refugees.

Male students at Dillard U to wear suits on first day of class

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Male students at the historically black university are encouraged to wear suits on the first day of class. If they don't own a suit, they can choose from a closet of donated business wear.

Essay urges grad students to adopt new persona on the job market

When it's time for a job search, Ph.D. candidates need to drop these behaviors, writes Karen Kelsky.

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What presidents really mean when they write to alumni (essay)

From: Seymour Gelt, President of U of All People

To: Our Recent Graduates, Friends and Families

Happy New Year! In China, this is the Year of the Green Sheep, which betokens fortune and prosperity.

[It’s easy to contribute money online. Check out www.uap.com/donate.]

If you’ve visited campus recently, you might have been surprised by our recent growth. At the far end of campus is our new No Sweat Rec Center, with its 12,000-square-foot yoga space, ergonometric juice bar and personal trainers in a two-to-one trainer-student ratio.

Opposite from the rec center in more than location is the Six Flags Food Court, with fast food from over five nations, including ours. Stop by our Mexicana stand for a plate of re-refried beans!

[Got money? Go to www.uap.com/donate.]

But it’s easy to get money for the amenities. It’s far harder for the humanities, where the last banner year was over a decade ago, when 2002 alumnus Greg Aryus donated $100 for a couple of library books. Well, never mind the humanities, which are hopeless these days in consumer branding. As an English department faculty member recently remarked, “Shakespeare belongs to everyone,” a lovely sentiment but not, I think, one that can be monetized efficiently.

For that matter, the natural sciences, too, have experienced setbacks, though the cyclotron accident in Mayhem Hall this past June can now be safely put behind us. The only bright light at the end of the tunnel is our Shekels School of Business, which managed to place a record 33 percent of its graduates last year, if “place” is interpreted as some kind of activity for some kind of remuneration.

[Donating money online is easy, through our intermediary makeapledge.com! Just go to www.uap.com/donate, and click on the empty-coffer icon. For non-liberal arts graduates: a coffer is a box for holding money.]

Of course, times have changed. The purpose of a university education has grown a step beyond college sports, casual hook-ups and drinking. With the national economy on the skids so long that slave-labor internships look good, it’s understandable that students demand jobs at the end of their four, five or six years here. As a recent graduate asked me just the other day, “How come I took courses in Plato and trigonometry, but the only postgraduation job I could snag was holiday helper at Kmart?” To which I could reply only, “Was that you in the green elf costume?”

[Remember your alma mater! www.uap.com/donate]

Of course, another reply is to note the very real achievements of some of our graduates:

Angelo “I’m no angel” Angelino, class of 2011, is now deputy assistant at the AMA, Association of Mob Affiliations, having recently survived what he good-humoredly calls “a brush with the law.” He’s recently donated a warehouse of major appliances that “fell off the truck.”

Dominique (Dom to her friends and clientele), class of 2008, is now mistress of her own dungeon, putting her double major in psychology and leisure science to good use. Always on the lookout for a few good subs, she’s just put out a new ad: “Check out my brand-spanking-new equipment -- and new spanking equipment!” She’s recently sent in funds for the construction of three Dom dorm rooms -- all sub-basement, of course.

[Got a business to advertise? Place a notice in the UAP Recording Angel alumni magazine, at www.uap.edu/record-ang/ads]

Here on campus, we haven’t exactly been idle, either, though the salary freeze since 2006 has prompted some to start enterprises on the side. The latest to do so is Professor M. T. Soote in Business, who’s begun an entrepreneurial institute that has already parlayed three bake sales into the Comestibles Exchange, with a trading value of $5 per cupcake.

[Psst! It’s cool to give! www.uap.com/donate]

That’s about it for now -- in fact, that’s all we have -- though please remember to keep us posted, via the megaphone icon, just to the left of the empty-coffer donation icon. In addition:

  • Check out our revamped website, www.uap.edu, which includes links to all available social media (like us on Facebook!). This month, we’re offering a virtual UAP lapel pin for the biggest alum donor-tweeter.
  • Attend homecoming, which this year will feature a special reception for our largest donee, To Be Announced.
  • Drop in. The campus is probably somewhat as you remember it. Check out your old haunts and recall a time when food fights didn’t mean squabbling over who gets to eat.

[U of All People: Where begging for funds has become a way of life. www.uap.com/donate]

With open hands out,

Seymour Gelt

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

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Organization in Arizona works to prevent further cuts to higher education

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A citizen-led organization wants to prevent future cuts to higher education in Arizona. But with a threat to raise taxes tied into the potential law and an administration set against tax increases, the odds are stacked against the group's work.

Article on Mark Zborowski, scholar and spy

Among the passengers disembarking from a ship from that reached Philadelphia in the final days of December 1941 was one Mark Zborowski -- a Ukrainian-born intellectual who grew up in Poland. He had lived in Paris for most of the previous decade, studying at the Sorbonne. He was detained by the authorities for a while (the U.S. had declared war on the Axis powers just three weeks earlier, so his visa must have been triple-checked) and then released.

Zborowski's fluency in several languages was a definite asset. By 1944 he was working for the U.S. Army on a Russian-English dictionary; after that that he joined the staff of the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, serving as a librarian. And from there the émigré’s career took off on an impressive if not meteoric course.

He joined the Research in Contemporary Culture Project at Columbia University, launched just after World War II by the prominent anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead with support from the Office of Naval Research. Zborowski oversaw an ethnographic study of Central and Eastern European Jewish culture, based on interviews with refugees. It yielded Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, a book he co-authored in 1952. Drawing on Zborowski’s childhood memories more than he acknowledged and written in a popularizing style, it sold well and remained in print for decades.

The volume’s reputation has taken some hits over the years -- one scholar dubs it “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other” – but Zborowski enjoyed the unusual distinction of influencing a Broadway musical: the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof was inspired, in part, by a passage in Life Is With People. He later turned to research on cultural differences in how pain is experienced and expressed, culminating in his book People in Pain (1969). Once again his published work got mixed reviews in the professional journals, while the author himself enjoyed a kind of influence that citation statistics do not measure: a generation of medical anthropologists studied with him at the Pain Institute of Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He died in 1990.

If the details just given represented an honest account of Mark Zborowski’s life, he would now be remembered by scarcely anyone except specialists working in his fields of interest. The narrative above is all factually correct, to the best of my knowledge. But it omits an abundance of secrets. Some were revealed during his lifetime, but even they come wrapped in the mystery of his motives.

The fullest account now available is “Mark ‘Etienne’ Zborowski: Portrait of Deception” by Susan Weissman, a two-part study appearing in the journal Critique. Weissman, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., published the first half in 2011 and expected the second to follow shortly, though in fact it will appear in print only later this year. (Both can be downloaded in PDF from her page at Academia.edu.)

Etienne was the name Zborowski used while infiltrating anti-Stalinist radical circles in France for the GPU and the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) during the 1930s, and he continued surveillance on opponents of the Soviet Union during his first few years in the United States.

“He is remembered by his students and colleagues as warm, generous and erudite,” writes Weissman. “Personally he neither stole documents nor directly assassinated people, but he informed Stalin’s teams of thugs where to find the documents or the people they sought. Zborowski infiltrated small leftist circles, made friends with its cadres and then reported on them. He always ratted on his ‘supposed’ friends. He saw [one woman] daily for nearly five years, and she helped him in countless ways. What did he give her in return? Only her survival, something not afforded to other Zborowski ‘friends.’ Once his orders switched and he no longer needed to report on her activities (or that of her husband), Zborowski simply stopped calling this constant friend, who defended him, gave him money and helped him with that precious commodity denied to so many, the visa to the United States.”

Weissman chronicles Etienne’s destructive role among the anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in Europe while also showing that his precise degree of culpability in some operations remains difficult to assess. Important missions were sometimes “nearly sabotaged by conflicting aims and lack of coordination between Soviet espionage teams.” And spy craft is not immune to a kind of office politics: reports to “the center” (intelligence headquarters) were not always accurate so much as aspirational or prudent.

Overviews of Zborowski’s covert life have been available for some time – among them, his own testimony to a Senate subcommittee on internal security, which was not especially candid. Weissman’s study draws on earlier treatments but handles them critically, and in the light of a wider range of sources than have been brought to bear on his case until now.

Besides material from Stalin-era archives (consulted when she was in Russia during the 1990s) and the decoded Venona intercepts of Soviet cable communications from the 1940s, Weissman obtained court transcripts from Zborowski’s trials for perjuring himself before Congress. (He received a retrial after appealing his first conviction, but lost and served four years in prison.)

She also used the Freedom of Information Act to request the pertinent files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were surveillance reports, of course, and interviews conducted by FBI agents -- with some pages all but entirely blacked out -- but also a piece of evidence about Zborowski that has been hiding in plain sight for 50 years.

The Feb. 28, 1965, issue of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times contained an article called “The Prison ‘Culture’ -- From the Inside.” The author identified himself as an anthropologist (“and as far as I know the first member of my profession to study a prison culture from the inside”) and used the pseudonym “M. Arc.” They seem like pretty clear hints to his identity, but no one seems to have made the connection until Weismann opened the dossier.

“The article is a scholarly, well-written account of life inside,” she notes, “with a critical look at the criminal justice system … and [it] has been widely cited and reprinted in prison sociology texts.”

Part of his hidden curriculum vitae, then. “True to form,” Weismann writes, “Zborowski put the focus entirely on the subject at hand, revealing virtually nothing of himself.”

And that really is the mystery within the mystery here. It’s difficult to square Professor Zborowski (amiable, conscientious, a little bland, perhaps) with the sinister career of Etienne, a man who made himself the closest friend of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov and quite possibly set him up for murder. (Afterward he tried to wrangle an invitation to the Russian revolutionary’s compound in Mexico, but another assassin got there first.)

In a conversation with Weissman by phone, I mentioned being both fascinated by her research (mention Trotsky in something and I’ll probably read it) and left puzzled by the figure she portrayed. And puzzled in a troubling way, with no sense of his intentions -- of how he had understood his own actions, whether while carrying them out or across the long years he had to reflect on them.

“While in prison,” she told me, “he kept insisting to the FBI that he was good citizen. He never expressed remorse. There’s nothing in his papers about his politics, nothing about his own beliefs.” The reader perplexed by Weissman's “portrait of deception” is in the same position as the scholar who investigated him: “He’s a puzzle I couldn’t solve.”

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