Math Pedagogy in Plato’s Republic

By Spencer Cawein Pate

This summer, I enrolled in a doctoral seminar centered on the standardization and corporatization of the curriculum in public schools. Our professor, Dr. Tom Poetter, had an ambitious goal for the class: to collectively write and produce a book on the course subject, drawing upon our own experiences and curriculum theorist William Pinar’s concept of currere, within a short and intense span of four weeks.

The book that resulted, Was Someone Mean to You Today?: The Impact of Standardization, Corporatization, and High-Stakes Testing on Students, Teachers, Communities, Schools, and Democracy, has just been published by Van-Griner. It’s an unusual and interesting volume: instead of each contributor authoring a separate chapter, we worked as teams to co-author chapters by weaving together previously-submitted essays and reflections on a common theme. I was in charge of the chapter on rhetoric, which contains three pieces of mine in addition to the chapter’s conclusion: a substantial exploration of the Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic foundations of currere, a strategic discussion of George Lakoff’s idea of linguistic reframing vs. Corey Robin’s advocacy for a “politics of freedom,” and finally a personal narrative about perennialist values in the math classroom. I would like to present a special expanded version of this last piece here, as I think it’s my most succinct and elegant statement of my educational philosophy and practice:

In the fall of 2014, I took a philosophy course centered on Plato’s Republic. Several books of the Republic concern the question of education in the author’s ideal society, and as a former middle school math teacher, I was delighted by how Plato places mathematics at the center of his educational philosophy. Plato, of course, would be an educational perennialist, concerned with passing down timeless / universal / transcendent truths to a new generation. Mathematics and geometry, which in Plato’s view are the very definition of archetypal forms (527b5: “it is knowledge of what always is, not of something that comes to be and passes away”), are ideal for this pedagogy, so long as they remain refined and abstract, divorced from any kind of measurement: “for the sake of knowledge rather than trade” (525d1-2). He goes on to argue the following:

“Then it would be appropriate, Glaucon, to prescribe this subject in our legislation and to persuade those who are going to take part in the greatest things in the city to go in for calculation and take it up, not as laymen do, but staying with it until they reach the point at which they see the nature of the numbers by means of understanding itself; not like tradesmen and retailers, caring about it for the sake of buying and selling, but for the sake of war and for ease in turning the soul itself around from becoming to truth and being. […] It gives the soul a strong lead upward and compels it to discuss the numbers themselves, never permitting anyone to propose for discussion numbers attached to visible or tangible bodies.” (525b11-d7)

Furthermore, the process of learning mathematics models the faculties or virtues of reason and logic that Plato attributes to the philosopher-kings of his ideal city: “More than anything else, then, we must require the inhabitants of your beautiful city not to neglect geometry in any way, since even its byproducts are not insignificant. […] And in addition, when it comes to being better able to pick up any subject, we surely know there is a world of difference between someone with a grasp of geometry and someone without one” (527c1-8). It exercises the mind in the same way physical training strengthens the body: 

“Now, have you ever noticed that those who are naturally quick at calculation are also naturally quick in all subjects, so to speak, and that those who are slow, if they are educated and exercised in it, even if they are benefited in no other way, nonetheless improve and become generally sharper than they were? […] Moreover, I do not think you will easily find many subjects that are harder to learn or practice than it. For all these reasons, then, the subject is not to be neglected. On the contrary, the very best natures must be educated in it.” (526b4-c5)

When I taught math, I would sometimes find myself being asked the inevitable questions by my students: “Why do we have to learn this? When am I going to use this in the real world?” The answers that math teachers typically default to are: “You will use math in your future job.” or “You need to learn math so you can get a good job in the future.” I find both of these answers to be unsatisfying and inaccurate; while many jobs (and everyday life itself, particularly in matters of finance) do involve more math than we often think, some jobs do not, and those that do will not necessarily involve all of the areas of mathematics that are commonly taught (because of specialization). And of course, when one answers with reference to jobs, students will immediately challenge you to specifically describe how the math they’re currently learning will be useful and relevant to a particular career, which is not always easily done.

Moreover, I especially dislike the corporatization and subordination of math education to the technical ends of capital, of being able to “compete in the global economy.” The use-value of mathematics infinitely exceeds its exchange-value; indeed, the study of mathematics doesn’t have to have a reason or a purpose: I believe that the contemplation of math, much like the contemplation of art, is its own reward.  So when students asked me those above questions, I tried to sidestep this trap by reframing what the questions presuppose. I would answer as follows:

“We should study and appreciate math for several reasons:

“1. Because math is beautiful and fascinating in its own right.

“2. Because math teaches us to reason, to think critically and logically, and in doing so, it makes us better and more literate citizens who can participate in a democratic society.

“3. Because math helps us to investigate and solve real-world problems and phenomena.

“4. Because math is connected to every other subject imaginable: science, history, economics, even art and music.”

And only after I listed those four reasons would I cite the fifth–to get a good and enjoyable job someday.

I would like to think that this is a rationale for mathematics education of which Plato would have basically approved. While doubtlessly he would not agree with my progressive pedagogical inclinations, my educational values are perennialist, like his own. Those eternal verities act as a bulwark against the corporatization of mathematics education (often under the guise of STEM), and they can help us to reframe what is considered normative or commonsensical in schooling. We teach and learn math not to serve the interests of capital, but rather for both public and private good.

Finally, I should note that seventh graders generally don’t find my answer any more satisfying than the default one. But we should expect this–after all, they’re still just middle schoolers. However, I believe that an intellectually honest if unconvincing answer is superior to a fundamentally dishonest and ethically suspect answer that is even less convincing. Who knows? Maybe I’ve planted seeds that, in the fullness of time, will flower and bear fruit. I would love to think that when my former students are, say, studying calculus and / or physics in high school or college, some will have an epiphanic moment of realization and exclaim: “Mr. Pate was right–mathematics really is beautiful!”

If you’re interested in reading more on-the-ground reportage and analysis of the disastrous effects of high-stakes testing on public schools–written by actual classroom teachers, informal educators, and college professors and administrators–be sure to check out the book! I’ll end with my reflection on the process of crafting the book:

This currere project reminded me of a quote from the final section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  It seems contradictory that only gathering and marshaling fragments can stave off encroaching ruination, but in the wake of the corporatization of education, perhaps fragments–of history, of theory, of discourse–are all that remain. Fragments are something we can build with, in the empty spaces between the rubble and debris that capital has left behind. The currere method produced short, sharp fragments of subjectivity (which we called “bits”), that were then worked into longer and more rigorous academic treatments. The treatments were in turn woven and braided into narratives, the narratives into chapters, and the chapters into the book you have just read. But rather than subordinating all of these disparate melodies to a single harmony, the currere process allowed us to babble with a polyphony of voices, a kind of sinuous and riverine music with themes submerging into and surfacing from the flow of the text. For all the messiness of our journey as a course, something spontaneous and surprising and novel emerged. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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Pockets of Remembrance, Whispers Out of Time: Male Teachers, Gender Transgression, and Queer Time

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Education in a Democratic Society.”]

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

—from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

I. Introduction

As a male student turned male educator, I’m fascinated by the manner in which my entire life and career have been conditioned by cultural expectations of sex and gender. In middle school, I was bullied and socially excluded (e.g., I ate lunch by myself for the better part of seventh grade) because my peers merely thought I was gay, as it was rumored. This should not come as a surprise: boys who succeed academically are often faced with social exclusion and bullying for their intellectual inclinations, which is why so many feel forced to conceal, downplay, or otherwise attempt to compensate for their academic abilities in order to avoid having their masculinity called into question—in order to better conform to those patriarchal expectations from which they are perceived to deviate. In the long term, the experience left me with a sense of unbreakable solidarity with anyone who is oppressed for their gender identity or sexual orientation, since I have suffered only a fraction of the misery that is often inflicted on this community.

But as a teacher, I am hardly free from these attitudes and ideologies either. As an emotionally sensitive (or “penetrable,” to use a word favored by the queer writer Henry James) and passionately intellectual and artistic biological male, it is still sometimes assumed or suspected that I am gay. (Not that I necessarily mind. Whether I am or not I increasingly prefer to leave ambiguous, so as to make others question their own investment in categorizing others.) Thus, I have gone from being gossiped about in middle school to being whispered about in much the same way as a teacher of middle school students. There is an unfortunate belief I have run up against that male teachers should project a certain degree of masculine or patriarchal authority. I have never been able (or interested, really) in acting, speaking, or teaching like a football coach or a military drill sergeant, but the project of progressive education conflicts with the sociocultural script for male teachers. And when those deviations and conflicts between expectations and reality do occur, one’s status as a man once again becomes called into question, regardless of one’s age.

In many ways, this essay is an attempt to make sense of my experiences, to explore the way male teachers find themselves raveled up with gender transgression and the theoretical concept of “queer time.” I will begin with a philosophical review of precisely this idea, which sheds light on the relationships of gender-nonconforming men to educational practices and institutions, and on the political-economic and sociocultural fault lines between separatism, assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. I will then proceed to a historical review of male teachers as gender transgressors (and vice versa)—which is severely underdeveloped as a category of historical analysis—over the course of the twentieth century. Finally, I will conclude by drawing together these two strands of thinking in order to argue for the power of queer male educators as political actors.

II. Philosophical Review

Back in 2011, I attended a rather dull undergraduate thesis presentation on the topic of “queer time.” An obscurantist concept cloaked in obfuscatory language, I was hard-pressed to determine exactly what this term was supposed to mean. The student seemed to suggest that because the traditional temporal markers of marriage and parenthood may not be present, a gay man’s subjective experience of the passage of time through his lifespan is ostensibly different from that of a straight man. This definition, though, seems so obvious as to be both trivial and tautological. After all, a gay man isn’t necessarily going to perceive his subjective experience of time as “queer,” because to him it will simply remain normal and expected; it is only from the position of a straight person that it will appear “queer” against the background of social consensus—which rather defeats the purpose of the concept to begin with. And when a childfree person like myself can also partake in queer time for lack of reproduction, this exception also serves to stretch the idea rather too thin to be useful.

But the concept of “queer time” has nevertheless intrigued me for years after that encounter, as it resonates with my own interests in what I’ve termed “temporal economy”—“the production, circulation, and consumption of affective states of temporal perception” (Pate 2013). I have made it my aim to learn more about queer time as it is discussed in philosophy and the social sciences, but like many concepts in queer theory and deconstruction (such as Derrida’s différance, for instance), it is an extraordinarily slippery idea that resists positive definitions, lacking a stable referent and perhaps even denoting this very absence of one. Queerness not only upsets our established notions of normality, it also works to destabilize all dichotomies, such as the binary opposition between normality and transgression. To my view, queer time is perhaps best grasped not in philosophy but rather through the arts, as a kind of “time out of joint.” Queer time is the temporal space of introspection and retrospection in the novels and stories of Henry James; the involuntary memory of the past as it haunts the present in Marcel Proust’s novel sequence; the elliptical epiphanies of Virginia Woolf’s fictional and real-life “moments of being”; and finally the quizzical, quixotic lyricism of John Ashbery. (Not coincidentally, all four of these writers were LGBTQA.) Indeed, it is from Ashbery’s moving final lines to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”—“pockets of remembrance, whispers out of time”—from which I drew the title of this paper, as his words best capture the spectral / hauntological nature of queer time, suspended between presence and absence.

If one follows the genealogy of “queer time” backwards through history, we might begin by connecting it to Nietzsche’s concept of “untimeliness.” Amusingly, Nietzsche himself never gave a satisfactory definition of this term either, but following deconstruction’s critique of phenomenology, we might consider it in relation to a moment of time that is split from within, haunted by the traces of the past and the ghosts of the future (Nietzsche 1997). Untimeliness is the spectral presence of anachronism—the “eternal return”—that queers our linear sense of historical progression.

There are as yet few academic works on the subject of queer time, although Judith / Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) is probably the definitive treatment, and it also constitutes a major (if implicit) theoretical category in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In order to guide our further enquiries, we will begin by examining Halberstam’s subtle discussion of “queer time” in the introduction to the aforementioned book:

This book makes the perhaps overly ambitious claim that there is such a thing as “queer time” and “queer space.” Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification. If we try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices, we detach queerness from sexual identity and come closer to understanding Foucault’s comment in “Friendship as a Way of Life” that “homosexuality threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex.” In Foucault’s radical formulation, queer friendships, queer networks, and the existence of these relations in space and in relation to the use of time mark out the particularity and indeed the perceived menace of homosexual life. In this book, the queer “way of life” will encompass subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these willfully eccentric modes of being. Obviously not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts, but part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space.

[…] And yet queer time, even as it emerges from the AIDS crisis, is not only about compression and annihilation; it is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing. In the sections on subcultures in this book, I will examine the queer temporalities that are proper to subcultural activities, and will propose that we rethink the adult / youth binary in relation to an “epistemology of youth” that disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity. Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death. (Halberstam 2005)

Although Halberstam places his emphasis on how queerness “has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space”—“a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing,” he openly acknowledges that “not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts.” Most crucially of all, Halberstam links queer time to subcultural activities and economic practices, and it is this political-economic dimension of queer time that this paper will explore in relation to male educators as gender transgressors. Following his work, we will “detach queerness from sexual identity” and “try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices.” But instead of discussing, as Halberstam does, queer men who “opt to live […] on the edges of logics of labor and production” and “outside the logic of capital accumulation,” those who “could productively be called ‘queer subjects’ in terms of the ways they live (deliberately, accidentally, or of necessity) during the hours when others sleep and in the spaces (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned, and in terms of the ways they might work in the domains that other people assign to privacy and family,” I intend to emphasize the very mundaneity of queer time (which, perhaps, renders it not very queer at all) in educational settings.

Before we delve into the relationship between male teachers, gender transgression, and queer time, we must first define a few other terms. This essay is concerned with gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or otherwise queer / questioning men in public K-12 schools, and we will use the acronym LGBTQA as a catch-all category to describe this disparate group united by their common status as “gender transgressors.” According to Jackie Blount, a gender transgressor is anyone who challenges traditional, accepted norms of “masculinity” and “femininity” and their attendant expectations of behavior (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000). This includes bachelors, men who are perceived as effeminate and sensitive, and LGBTQA individuals of all stripes. Indeed, even outliers like men in a female-dominated profession or role (such as an elementary school teacher) could be considered to rebel against gender roles at certain historical junctures. In the academic field of cultural studies, we hold these gendered norms of behavior to be culturally constructed categories, constellations of meanings and affects that are attached to the ostensible dichotomy of biological sex, and furthermore that these roles are built over time through iterated performances and presentations of the self (Butler 1990). (And it’s important to point out that this concept is not just hypothetical or theoretical; there is an abundance of empirical support stacked against the essentialist ideas that sex and gender are monolithic, totalizing, and immutable black boxes, instead of being fluid, contingent, and socially-constructed articulations [Fine 2011].) While the base of cultural categories (definitions of what constitutes masculine and feminine) remains relatively stable and changes only slowly, the superstructure of societal configurations evolves more rapidly, accreting and sedimenting around the shifting material conditions of life.

What cultural studies cannot explain alone, however, are political-economic-historical questions, like why many gay men have such a close relationship to the arts—whether that takes the form of restoring buildings, preserving neighborhoods, collecting antiques, curating galleries, or creating art oneself. Fortunately, there is a small but intriguing body of scholarship (such as Will Fellows’ A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture [2005]) that explores precisely this question. One possible explanation for this curiosity might be that gay culture, which cannot automatically reproduce itself socially in the manner of race or ethnicity (because gay men in the past typically did not raise families of their own, and their children in all likelihood would not share the same sexual orientation anyway), must be transmitted through different vectors—oral and textual and performative traditions of affiliation and affinity. Clearly, we are once again dealing with the experience of queer time. It is through this temporal dimension that gay men become custodians or guardians of high culture; a life devoted to antiquity augurs a separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity (Halberstam 2005, 2011; Freeman 2010; Munoz 2009). As Simon Reynolds puts it, “a life dedicated to aestheticism […] held out the prospect of a life apart from the more traditionally macho work cultures in industry or finance, promising a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women” (Reynolds 2011). Perhaps the status of gay teachers is homologous; perhaps the untimely anachronisms (in the Nietzschian sense) of queer life lead to a heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations. And, of course, the gender balance of the teaching profession also promises “a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women.” (While the practice of teaching initially might not seem to fit in with the arts, antiquity, and high culture, I would submit that teaching is a creative act closer to improvisatory, performative art than it is to an objective science.) Just as colleges and universities can function as semi-safe spaces for political radicals and eccentrics of all stripes, the public school system allows, to an extent, for the conscious and relatively unconstrained construction and performance of alternative gender and sexual identities. Indeed, Kevin Jennings and Jackie Blount both claim that there is a higher percentage of LGBTQA individuals in teaching than there is in the population as a whole (Blount 2006; Jennings 2005). Even though gay male educators may still face prejudice and outright discrimination and harassment, there are strong legal and judicial precedents stating that public school teachers have the “right to be out” of the closet with regard to their sexual orientations, and many attempts to fire gay teachers have ended with their reinstatement (Biegel 2010; Harbeck 1992). Clearly, this statistic indicates that there must be some kind of incentive for so many gay men to enter teaching, some new form of Deleuzian desiring-production (or libidinal investment in the traditional psychoanalytic sense), or else this would not be the case.

There is, however, one salient difference between gender transgressors in the arts and gender transgressors in education, in that the latter do not have the privilege of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity.” Privilege is correlated with class power; gender transgressors in the arts will most likely have a higher socieoeconomic status than working-class gender transgressors in public education, who must contend with issues of intersectionality. Gender transgressors employed by schools are working in the public sphere, and as such they are held to a different standard of behavior than those who work in the private sphere—such as the arts, which can amount to a social sorting mechanism that deliberately keeps gay men isolated from the rest of society and thus neutered and marginalized from democratic voice and political power. There is nothing inherently radical about queerness; it does not, for example, solve problems of the relationship of labor to capital. As public spaces of social reproduction, schools are veritably saturated in hegemonic masculinity, because it is traditionally held that one of the implicit aims of education is to model gender-appropriate behavior for children as they grow up and become adults (Blount 2006; Blount & Anahita 2004). As I have been told several times throughout my life, male teachers are expected to serve as “father figures” for male children; conversely, female teachers are supposed to act nurturing and “mothering” as they provide care and instruction. It is in this manner that what Gilles Deleuze called the “Oedipal triangle” of the family is transposed onto the field of pedagogy (Deleuze & Guattari 1972). Jackie Blount argues that society considers gender-appropriate behavior to be so important in the first instance due to political economy (with regard to the forces of production and the division of labor between men and women) and, in turn, entrenched sexism—the oppression of women—and heteronormativity / compulsory heterosexuality—the oppression of non-heterosexuals. The unconscious hidden curriculum, of course, is very efficient at maintaining these boundaries of sex and gender in both students and teachers. Historically, in the not-so-distant past, teachers exhibiting the wrong “demeanor” have been punished or removed from school altogether, and at some extremes of social hysteria, they have been subject to “witch hunts” roughly parallel or even coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists.

As a result of this prejudice, discrimination, and harassment, many radical queer theorists (including many of those we relied upon earlier to limn the concept of queer time) favor a certain critical distance or separation from the structures of mainstream culture; they mourn the loss of some of the more distinctive institutions, practices, and transactions of gay culture (namely, anonymous and / or public sex) in favor of greater integration into capitalist markets and monogamous familial units. Separatism presents itself as a kind of Nietzschian affirmation—variously identifying queerness with antisocial refusal, a counter to childhood innocence, a (non)dialectical force of negativity, or the Freudian death drive—although in practice it often collapses into a reveling in one’s own state of abjection (Edelman 2004; Love 2009). But separatism is, to my view, neither possible nor desirable for the majority of gay men, those who do not have the luxury to live in an individual sphere of private privilege. It is our responsibility as citizens of a democratic society to collectively figure out how to live together and tolerate one another, and separatism works against this pressing public need.

Other, more pragmatic or moderate liberal thinkers celebrate the reciprocity of assimilation—they observe not only how queerness has been domesticated and come to be seen as inherently normal, even mundane, but also how our very sense of mainstream normality has been queered by gay culture, allowing for the proliferation of a greater variety of publicly acceptable gender identities and sexual orientations. And while schools are indeed still in the grip of hegemonic masculinity, assimilationists might point out that they are also fungible and penetrable, allowing for the development of counternarratives and countercultures. Far from the sense of resignation and the gloomy pronouncements of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose proffered by historians of sex education, the situation for gender nonconforming students and teachers has improved over the past decade, perhaps especially because other students are increasingly willing to stand up for their friends and act as allies. The condition of homosexuality is no longer as lonely, isolating, and alienating as it once was.

So one of the central tensions within any minority, such as LGBTQA adults, in a democratic society is between cultural separatism and assimilation. For example, assimilationists and separatists might disagree on the extent that LGBTQA teachers can or should be out of the closet about their identities at particular grade levels. I hope to demonstrate that a middle course between these positions is not only possible, but also necessary. I follow philosopher Baruch Spinoza in arguing that there is nothing intrinsically transgressive about gender transgression, insofar as “transgression” always-already remains within the horizon of what is natural and human(e) (Spinoza 2005). In the following sections, I will argue that one of the most important values of a liberal democratic society is cosmopolitanism, which, in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, is “universality plus difference,” rather like the intersectional union of a Venn Diagram (Appiah 2007). Cosmopolitans believe in the inherent value of diversity, and as spaces of cultural (re)production and reproduction, public schools are ideal sites to cultivate cosmopolitanism, to learn about both individual and group similarity and uniqueness (Biegel 2010; Brighouse 2005; Jennings 2005). Exposure to a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities helps us to develop a sense of social justice and advocate for it inside and outside of the classroom, and having an openly gender-transgressing male teacher will allow students to accept the normality and mundaneity of queerness as an affect and an identity. Over time, hopefully, both students and teachers can come to be free of prescribed cultural expectations and see queerness and gender transgression for what they really are—possibilities on the spectrum of natural human diversity.

One of the most inspiring examples of liberal democratic cosmopolitanism in educational settings is that of the gay-straight alliances that have sprung up across high schools and even some middle schools in the United States. (The main parent organization of these groups, GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network—was in fact founded by the aforementioned activist and author Kevin Jennings.) Gay-straight alliances help to combat the routine bullying of gender transgressing students and the harmful stereotypes that contribute to the pervasive atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity / heteronormativity in school settings. They give LGBTQA students a safe space to talk about their experiences, identities, and struggles, while both gay and straight students gain an education in how to be effective allies, activists, and peer mediators. Such alliances serve to introduce students to themes of social justice and a theory-praxis of activism that they might not otherwise receive in the course of their schooling. Moreover, gay-straight alliances are often spearheaded by LGBTQA teachers who serve as faculty advisors for the groups and, perhaps, as informal mentors to gender nonconforming students. Gay male teachers can take on leadership positions and help to batter down the closet walls that keep themselves and others separated from each other. By putting an end to shame and fear, they can perform their authentic identities and form new collective affinities and affiliations. As adults who have made it through the gauntlet of middle school and high school, they can also deliver the crucial message to students that they are not alone and that it does, in fact, get better. Gay-straight alliances allow gender-transgressing students and teachers to work together and learn from each other in a classically democratic fashion, to put into practice the cultivation of cosmopolitanism in educational settings.

Social reproduction is never perfect and totalizing, and there is never repetition without difference, so educators and political activists have access to spaces and discourses of critical resistance—pockets and whispers, as it were—in which they can work to interrupt these cycles. In a deconstructive sense, queer time challenges the repetitions of history; it has the power to open up possibilities for new affiliations and affinities between the self and others. Paradoxically, public schools allow gender transgressing male educators the chance to “negotiate the self,” perform their identities, and practice the radical “politics of authenticity” (Berman 2009; Evans 2002; Jackson 2007).

III. Historical Review

This historical review will concentrate on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with some discussion of nineteenth century for additional context. While there is still a great deal of academic work to be done on gay male educators, there is actually much scholarship of interest concerning gay male students, particularly at single-sex institutions like private or boarding schools. This should probably not be surprising: because educational environments are more unwelcoming to LGBTQA students than to LGBTQA teachers, it has typically been students who have taken the initiative to form affinity groups and mobilize for collective action rather than educators. Furthermore, gay teachers had a disincentive to organize because they had more to lose—when one’s employment and livelihood are at stake in addition to one’s reputation, caution is the order of the day. (That said, openly gay college students or closeted students caught in undercover “sting” operations also faced serious consequences like expulsion, and university administrations frequently tried to prevent them from organizing politically or socially.)

When one examines the historical record, one is often surprised to find that gay rights movements existed in and out of schools years before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Beemyn 2003; D’Emilio 1992). There were continuous moral panics about the danger that boarding schools and college dormitories would lead to overly close, romantic, or erotic same-sex friendships / relationships that, in turn, would work to feminize men and masculize women. Before the rise of gay-straight alliances in the 1990s, which serve to link together student and teacher activism against homophobia, LGBTQA teachers who wanted to support LGBTQA students had to do so privately, sub rosa (Mayo 2008). In this sense, gender transgressing male educators could become informal mentors or counselors to students who were struggling with the same issues. The obvious downside of these pre-GSA relationships, however, is that they invited charges of impropriety and that perennial hysteria of the religious right, “homosexual recruitment” or seduction. Students in the 1960s combated this, however, by forming what was at the time called “homophile leagues.” Although the desire to remain safely anonymous meant that these groups had to exercise great discretion and secrecy, the student leagues were actually more militant than the “mainstream” gay rights organizations, serving to build alliances with other activist movements and to construct the foundation for gay liberation in the ensuing decades:

The story sounds familiar: following a 1969 confrontation in New York, a small group of self-identified lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and their supporters created a militant gay rights organization in the United States, one that would help foster the gay liberation movement. However, the individuals involved in this group were not residents of New York City but students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the confrontation was not the riot of working-class black and Latino drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village but the takeover by African American students of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell’s campus union. Nor did the group, the Student Homophile League, begin in the wake of Stonewall; rather, it was formed in 1968, making it the second gay rights group to be organized on a college campus, after Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, of which the Cornell group was initially a chapter.

While Stonewall served as a main catalyst for the rise of a new era in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the preceding gay activism at Columbia, Cornell, and a handful of other universities played a critical role in laying the groundwork that would enable a militant movement to emerge following the riots. Not only did the student groups take the lead in asserting a sense of pride in being gay, but, through speaking unabashedly to others about their personal experiences (what the Cornell group called “zaps”) and developing alliances with those engaged in other struggles, especially the antiwar movement, they made gay liberation an important concern for many nongay people. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s gay politics moved from the relatively insular environment of homophile organizations onto the agendas of many radical student activists. These nongay activists, some of whom subsequently recognized their attraction to others of the same gender and began to identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, helped broaden the base of support for gay liberation at Cornell and other schools in the years following Stonewall.

Yet the importance of college groups to gay liberation has been largely overlooked by LGBT historians, who either assume that the movement was born literally overnight following the riots or give too much credit to the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other mainline homophile organizations, many of whose members were actually opposed to the greater militancy represented by Stonewall. In order to sharpen our understanding of the emergence of the gay liberation movement, I will trace the development of the gay rights groups at Columbia and particularly at Cornell, where the militant tactics of the campus antiwar and Black Power movements encouraged the university’s Student Homophile League to become more visible and more confrontational. The transition of Cornell’s SHL from focusing on civil liberties to advocating social and political liberation both reflected and contributed to the growing radicalism of the LGBT movement. (Beemyn 2003)

In this excerpt, we can clearly see the tensions between assimilation and separatism that existed in early activist groups; there was as yet no consensus regarding strategy. The separatist radicalism on display eventually became tempered with the desire for mainstream respectability, leading to the assimilationism of the latter twentieth century. Cosmopolitanism is always a work in progress, something that is held and constructed in common rather than conforming neatly to a public-private (false) dichotomy.

We will begin to discuss the history of male gender transgressors in public K-12 schools by surveying the large-scale sociocultural and political-economic trends in educational employment, with special reference to the seminal work of Jackie Blount in this field (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000, 2006). (We should also note that Blount cautions us that public discussion of homosexuality has traditionally been surrounded by silence and warded off by taboos, so the public record about the gender and sexual identity of teachers is highly fragmentary and elliptical as a result, leaving us with traces and palimpsests—here and there in pockets of remembrance and whispers out of time, as it were—to interpret.) Her compelling and convincing historical narrative seems to consist of three moments in a dialectic of sorts. The first period covers both the era in which the teaching profession was almost exclusively dominated by men (roughly 1800-1850) and the era when the gender balance of the field became almost entirely inverted from what it was before (about 1850-1910). During the mid-nineteenth century, the common school movement led to an expansion of the education profession, and when schools found themselves in need of an inexpensive labor supply, they turned to women as a source of cheap prospective employees (because, unfortunately, they could get away with paying women less). In this latter time period, the number of men in the profession decreased dramatically. As a result, new administrative positions, such as principals and superintendents, were created in order to attract men and retain them in the education profession with the promise of more money, lest they leave and join a more actively masculine line of work, one offering greater independence, social standing, and opportunities for promotion. It was mandated that the women who were to serve as teachers remain unmarried, because it was assumed that married women would be less loyal to their employer and their school because they would naturally devote more time and energy to their own children and families. “Old maids” and “spinsters” quickly began to dominate the profession to such a degree that the remaining men were gendered as effeminate in the popular imagination. Moreover, it was believed that even ostensibly masculine male teachers would be made effeminate by the proximity of women in school contexts.

In the second phase (about 1900-1930), education remained a feminine field, but younger unmarried women began to enter in much greater numbers. Interestingly, Blount refers to evidence indicating that a surprisingly large proportion of these teachers may have been (at least latent) lesbians, so education might have felt to them as something of a safe space. In the Depression / WWII era (1930-1945), however, the preference shifted to married teachers; schools both opened up the profession to married women and attempted to purge single women from their ranks precisely because of those fears of lesbianism surrounding “spinster” teachers. In the third phase (1945-2000), when anxieties that the preponderance of women teachers would lead to a generation of “sissy” boys, public opinion encouraged men to enter education once again so as to reassert masculine values and reinscribe traditional gender roles and norms. Blount notes the following conditions for male teachers during this period:

While the proportion of single to married women teachers drastically declined after WWII, conditions for male educators changed as well. Codes of properly masculine conduct and demeanor became tougher and narrower. Earlier in the twentieth century, somewhat effeminate men were considered undesirable for teaching positions in part because they were thought to provide poor role-modeling for young males. On the other hand, G. Stanley Hall argued in his widely read book, Adolescence, that properly masculine men hired to become teachers often became effeminate by working alongside women because such colleagues would cause them to “suffer some deterioration in the moral tone of their virility and lose in the power to cope successfully with men” (p. 623).

However, by mid-century effeminate men were also broadly considered to be homosexual, making matters even more complicated for male school workers. […] The possible presence of effeminate male teachers in schools, then, became a matter of public concern, it was argued because such teachers “carry sex problems into the schools, and transmit abnormal attitudes to their pupils” (Waller, 1932, pp. 147-149).

Making this situation potentially even more dire, conventional wisdom of the time also held that homosexual males were particularly drawn to a few professions, including teaching. Alfred Gross, author of the Strangers in Our Midst (1962), argued that:

Denied, through lack of wife and family, the satisfaction of home life, the homosexual must look more and more to his work to bring him what might in some sort compensate him for this deprivation. This may be a reason why some homosexuals, consciously or unconsciously, gravitate to professions that can give emotional satisfaction—teaching, social work, the ministry, and the like (p. 151).

Because homosexual men were thought to be particularly drawn to professions such as teaching, because conventional wisdom held that homosexual men could be identified by effeminate characteristics, and because one important role teachers were required to fulfill was to provide correct gender modeling for the children they taught, the 1950s and 1960s brought national campaigns to find the men to work in schools who reflected the most proper, respectable standards of masculinity for the time, i.e., seemingly heterosexual men. (Blount 2000)

As such, LGBTQA teachers constantly had to worry about the suspicion of the public and the state of their reputations (sometimes even going so far as to enter into so-called “lavender marriages” with other LGBTQA individuals), which were threatened by the aforementioned periodic moral panics. These panics sometimes expanded into full-blown witch hunts similar to or coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists in public employment. The most infamous of these campaigns was the Johns Committee in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s, which Karen Graves documented in her stunning book And They Were Wonderful Teachers (2009). This Florida Legislative Investigative Committee—named after Charley Eugene Johns, a state senator and former governor obsessed with rooting out supposed perverts—used covert informants (which often amounted to gossip or rumors from student testimonials), forced interrogations, and outright entrapment to publicly dismiss suspected or admitted LGBTQA educators on the flimsiest of evidence. By the end of the Committee’s reign of terror in 1965, over 39 college professors and deans were fired, and 71 public school teachers had their certificates revoked (Graves 2009). Of course, this is hardly the only such instance of the so-called Lavender Scare in the United States, and Graves actually suggests that more men and women lost their job for ostensible sexual deviance or perversion than for communist associations. Joseph McCarthy often reflexively associated communists with homosexuals during the Second Red Scare, attempting to smear his targets and enemies with guilt by association. And as late as the 1970s, the (resounding failure of the) Briggs Initiative in California—which was in turn inspired by Anita Bryant’s successfully “Save Our Children” campaign that repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and other states—attempted to pass legislation that would have prevented LGBTQA educators from being employed in public schools, or for other teachers to make positive or even neutral statements about gay rights in school settings (Graves 2013). Indeed, if recent history teaches us anything, the principal result of a climate in which teachers cannot privately or publicly support LGBTQA students is bullying and ostracism so severe that some teens are driven to contemplate or commit suicide (Erdely 2012).

What also intrigues me, however, is that the pseudoscientific psychological arguments proffered by Alfred Gross in the above quote—in which gender transgressing men are figured as deprived deviants who lack emotional satisfaction and the fulfillment of family life, and who thus turn to and immerse themselves in the work of teaching as a compensatory measure—actually contain a grain of philosophical truth. As I argued with regard to the concept of queer time, schools very likely did afford in the past (and continue to provide in the present and future) male LGBTQA teachers with something of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity” in which they can “become custodians or guardians of high culture” with a “heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations.” The salient differences between my position and that of midcentury psychologists are that a) Gross depicts gay men as inherently isolated and lonely, whereas we are now well aware of the existence of thriving gay communities (at least in urban areas) and networks of sociality, and b) Gross places a negative spin on the lack of a traditional family structure, which I have attempted to present neutrally or give a positive twist, since this apparent lack can be transformed into a new form of desiring-production in educational theory and practice. Nonetheless, Gross’ argument may ring truer for gender transgressing men in rural or suburban settings, which are traditionally less tolerant—less cosmopolitan, as the word root of this adjective (polis) actually means “city”—than urban areas. Indeed, schools may well have served as surrogate families for gay men in the sprawling seclusion of the American Midwest.

Most of the available ethnographies, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs about gay male educators discuss this paradoxical tension between isolation and companionship. (Unfortunately, most of them fail to ask, or to answer, a very basic yet very important question: “What drew you to teaching as a career or as a calling?” This omission renders these studies far less useful than I had hoped.) On the one hand, some teachers feel forced to consciously switch the gender of their life partner when that person comes up in teachers’ lounge or classroom conversations; the effort of doing so becomes exhausting and induces anxiety over the possible price of slipping up. Some go so far as to withdraw from community life as much as possible in order to avoid being seen by students outside of school. On the other hand, such teachers feel that they are able to form stronger bonds with students—albeit still professional ones—because of the solidarity they feel with anyone else who is struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, one of the common (if implicit and unspoken) themes running through all of their testimonials is that of vulnerability, which has both positive and negative effects. Vulnerability can be converted from a negative into a positive, however, by openly acknowledging it—essentially, by coming out of the closet. Publically sharing our vulnerabilities unites us, bringing us closer together rather than isolating us through private shame and fear.

In recent years, I have often heard authority figures, such as politicians and school administrators, urge men to enter the teaching profession so as to serve as positive role models or father figures for male students. Taken at literal or face value, I actually find this ideal to be fairly innocuous. After all, many male children do indeed lack alternative real-life models for adult masculinity—models in which masculinity is not opposed to the intellect or to emotional sensitivity and caring—outside of the reductive images proffered by popular culture, i.e., professional athletes, rappers, action heroes, etc. More problematic, however, is the idea that male teachers need to be ultra-masculine in order to serve as a bulwark against the creeping feminization of education and, indeed, against the supposed encroaching feminization of society as a whole. What this really amounts to is the equation of femininity with weakness. For example, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, conservative commentators in the media made the (unbelievably disgusting) argument that if there were more “traditionally masculine” male teachers present at the school (and especially at elementary schools in general instead of just middle and high schools), such as former athletes and members of the armed services, then they could have saved more lives or even stopped the shooter before he murdered more innocents. According to Charlotte Allen in the pages of the National Review,

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. […] But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak—but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza. (Allen 2012)

This is, of course, a totally vile and insulting line of “thinking,” but it many ways it remains sadly typical of hyper-masculinization as the flipside of the feminization of the teaching profession. In the eyes of too many adults, male gender transgressors have no place in schools or in society.

Similarly, this masculinist ideology was also made manifest on a local level post-Newtown when Butler County sheriff Richard K. Jones publicly proposed hiring retired police officers as armed substitute teachers for local school districts (Pack 2013). These veteran officers would be made exempt from school regulations concerning firearms—concealed or otherwise—and could thus serve to protect students and staff should an attempted school shooting occur. Notwithstanding that armed school resource officers have failed to prevent violence in the past (such as Columbine), this idea managed to insult me, a former substitute teacher, on two separate levels. First, Jones implied that absolutely anyone could do my job—presumably, he pictured it as consisting of showing videos and running study halls. As an experienced educator who led the instruction of regularly scheduled lessons most days as a substitute, I was genuinely offended by this suggestion. Second, Jones also insinuated that substitute teachers as a profession—most of whom are women, and many of whom are themselves retired educators—are insufficiently masculine to protect our students. When placed side by side, these arguments create an image of a world in which violence is inevitable, and only “manly men” have the power to combat it through further acts of violence. The deleterious effect on school culture and climate that would result from the implementation of Jones’ proposal should be obvious.

One of the most damaging consequences of this attitude is the pervasive silence surrounding LGBTQA educators. As noted above, those educators themselves feel compelled to maintain that silence by, essentially, denying their true identities and constructing / performing a false one for the public. The steep price of maintaining this facade is anxiety, depression, and a loss of satisfaction in one’s job (Sanlo 1999). Silence, then, is something we must loudly transgress against. As the AIDS awareness activist group ACT-UP put it so succinctly and eloquently in the 1980s, if “silence = death,” then “action = life.” In this context of escalating masculinization, gender-transgressing male educators are transgressors in the purest sense: these teachers subvert notions of manhood that equate it with strength and domination and replace them with an ethic of care.

IV. Conclusion

Queer time belongs neither entirely to the private nor wholly to the public. Rather, queer time is a liminal state of being that ironizes this very separation between public and private spheres, as it binds together private, marginalized, and isolated individuals in the formation of new oppositional countercultures and counterpublics (a term coined by queer theorist Michael Warner)—which is something LGBTQA culture has always excelled at, at least with regard to sexual cultures (Warner 2005). Gender-transgressing male educators are one such counterpublic-in-becoming, one that has the potential to redefine our notions of what constitutes masculinity and the concept of a fulfilling life. LGBTQA teachers have abundantly demonstrated that one does not need to be married or have children to seek and find fulfillment; the surplus-enjoyment and desiring-production of education as a form of care and as a kind of cultural labor is satisfaction enough. More than a mere surrogate family, the classroom is a “queer space” in which “queer time” disrupts social reproduction, opening up instead possibilities of teacher-student activism for social justice.

I would like to suggest, tentatively and provisionally, that the subjective experience of queer time is in many ways synonymous with the subjective experience of learning as such. In 2013, I wrote the following:

If education as an institution is to avoid becoming an anachronism, then our pedagogy must become actively, deliberately anachronistic in its essence.

[…] I mean the word anachronism very literally—“against time,” as in the “untimeliness” suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. This kind of anachronism can be seen in the time-less anachronism of literary modernism (such as T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”), the deep arche-time of the sciences, or perhaps the contemplative time-zone of the monastic tradition. It is akin to a Platonic archetypal form or the Hegelian absolute—a truth or “eternal idea” that is orthogonal, not retrograde, to the passing of time, and which can only be uncovered through a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation. (Pate 2013)

Queer time is exactly this: “a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation.” Gender-transgressing men are thus “keepers of culture” in the purest sense, acting as guardians of art and antiquity. But ironically, although schools have never been friendlier (or at least less hostile) to LGBTQA teachers and students, the walls are closing in on queer time. This Deleuzian “intensive space” is being encroached upon by the (re)territorializing forces of standardization, high-stakes testing, and educational technology, turning it into a “metric space” in which a factory model of education—lean production plus Frederick Taylor’s scientific management—can be fully implemented (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). The relentless digital quantification of time in schools militates against queer time, against the suspension and dissolution of time that is at the heart of learning as such.

So what is to be done if we wish to halt this capitalist enclosure of education? I would argue that gender transgressing male teachers not only need to be as open and uncloseted as possible, but also should work to connect their own struggles—against heterosexism—to broader movements of social justice activism: labor politics, feminism, racial equality, etc. As E.M. Forster—another gay writer well-versed in aesthetic queer time—famously wrote, we must “only connect” with each other. And in John Ashbery’s words, we feel “too confined, / Sifting the April sunlight for clues, / In the mere stillness of the ease of its / Parameter” if we allow ourselves to be socially isolated from our communities. Gender transgressors must return to the public, cosmopolitan, celebratory “balconies”—the kind of vantage, for instance, from which one might watch and cheer on a gay pride parade—wherein “all things happen,” rather than resume our actions within alienated, separatist private spheres in which “the action is the cold, syrupy flow / Of a pageant.” LGBTQA teachers must embrace the negative capability—the contingency, uncertainty, and doubt—that is at the heart of teaching and learning: “The hand holds no chalk / And each part of the whole falls off / And cannot know it knew” (Ashbery 2008). It is a queer time, a queer space, a point at which the private, individual politics of authenticity transform into a radical public dimension of collective joy.

V. Acknowledgements

Thank you to Dr. Karen L. Graves for sharing with me the fruits of her extensive bibliographic research, and to Dr. Kate Rousmaniere for her thoughtful advice and continual support of my graduate studies and career.

IV. Bibliography

Allen, C. (2012, December 19). Newtown answers: NRO symposium. National Review. Retrieved from

Appiah, K.A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ashbery, J. (2008). Collected poems: 1956-1987. New York: Library of America.

Beemyn, B. (2003). The silence is broken: A history of the first lesbian, gay, and bisexual college student groups. Journal of the History of Sexuality 12(2), 205-223.

Berman, M. (2009). The politics of authenticity. New York: Verso Books.

Biegel, S. (2010). The right to be out: Sexual orientation and gender identity in America’s public schools. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Blount, J. (1996). Manly men and womanly women: Deviance, gender role polarization, and the shift in women’s school employment, 1900-1976. Harvard Educational Review, 318-38.

Blount, J. (1999). Manliness and the construction of men’s and women’s work in schools, 1865-1941. International Journal of Leadership in Education,2(2), 55-68.

Blount, J. (2000). Spinsters, bachelors, and other gender transgressors in school employment, 1850-1990. Review of Educational Research70(1), 83-101.

Blount, J. (2003). The history of teaching and talking about sex in schools. History of Education Quarterly 43(4), 610-615.

Blount, J. (2006). Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the twentieth century. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Blount, J. and Anahita, S. (2004). The historical regulation of sexuality and gender of students and teachers: An intertwined legacy. In Rasmussen, M.L., Rofes, E., & Talburt, S. (Eds.). Youth and sexualities: Pleasure, subversion, and insubordination in and out of schools. (63-83). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brighouse, H. (2005). On education. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Connell, C. (2014). School’s out: Gay and lesbian teachers in the classroom. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-Oedipus Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1980). A thousand plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

D’Emilio, J. (1992). Making trouble: Essays on gay history, politics, and the university. New York: Routledge.

Edelman, L. (2004). No future: Queer theory and the death drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Erdely, S.R. (2012). One town’s war on gay teens. Rolling Stone 1150. Retrieved from

Evans, K. (2002). Negotiating the self: Identity, sexuality, and emotion in learning to teach. New York: Routledge.

Fellows, W. (2005). A passion to preserve: Gay men as keepers of culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fine, C. (2011). Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Freeman, E. (2010). Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graves, K.L. (2009). And they were wonderful teachers: Florida’s purge of gay and lesbian teachers. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Graves, K.L. (2012). ‘So, you think you have a history?’ Taking a Q from lesbian and gay studies in writing education history. History of Education Quarterly 52(4), 465-487.

Graves, KL. (2013). Political pawns in an educational endgame: Reflections on Bryant, Briggs, and some twentieth-century school questions. History of Education Quarterly 53(1), 1-20.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: NYU Press.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harbeck, K.M. (Ed.). (1992). Coming out of the classroom closet: Gay and lesbian students, teachers, and curricula. New York: Routledge.

Harbeck, K.M. (1997). Gay and lesbian educators: Personal freedoms, public constraints. Malden, MA: Amethyst Press.

Harris, A. M., & Gray, E. M. (2014). Queer teachers, identity and performativity. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jackson, J. M. (2007). Unmasking identities: An exploration of the lives of gay and lesbian teachers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jennings, K. (Ed.) (2005). One teacher in ten: LGBT educators share their stories. New York: Alyson Books.

Kissen, R. M. (1996). The last closet: The real lives of lesbian and gay teachers. Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann.

Love, H. (2009). Feeling backward: Loss and the politics of queer history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mayo Jr., J. (2008). Gay teachers’ negotiated interactions with their students and (straight) colleagues. High School Journal, 92(1), 1-10.

Munoz, J.E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York: NYU Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1997). Untimely meditations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pack, L. (2013, January 17). Sheriff proposes plan for armed personnel in schools. Hamilton Journal-News. Retrieved from

Pate, S.C. (2013, October 8). Education in Chronopolis: On the political and temporal economy of educational technology. The Light of Lost Words. Retrieved from

Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past. London: Faber & Faber.

Sanlo, R. L. (1999). Unheard voices: The effects of silence on lesbian and gay educators. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Spinoza, B. (2005). Ethics. New York: Penguin Classics.

Warner, M. (2005). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Woog, D. (1995). School’s out: The impact of gay and lesbian issues on America’s schools. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Posted in literature, philosophy | Leave a comment

Media Literacy, Comic Book Pedagogy, and the Aesthetic Myth of the Given

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Literature and Other Media for Adolescents.”]

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they can help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.

–from Supergods by Grant Morrison (2012 p. xvii)

“You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism.”

–Jack Kirby (quoted in Howe 2013 p. 103)

I. Introduction

In a vastly influential paper published in 1956, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the concept of “the myth of the given.” The proximate target of Sellars’ critique of “givenness,” of the apparent immediacy of knowledge as derived from sense-data (“knowledge by acquaintance,” as he called it), was intended to be foundationalist epistemologies such as phenomenological theories of perception and cognition, but it has often occurred to me that “the myth of the given” can be formulated or translated into aesthetic terms as well as philosophical ones (Sellars 1956).

For example, it’s frequently argued that reading prose is inherently superior–in cognitive terms if not also in morally virtuous ones–to viewing films or engaging with mixed-media texts like comics. This argument relies on an assumption of the native “givenness” of meaning for the spectator of movies and comics as opposed to that of literature, in which it assumed that meaning must be actively constructed by the reader and is therefore not given as such. What requires more effort, what makes the audience work harder, is asserted to be better for the consumer and perhaps even for society as a whole. (We can see this snobbish attitude literalized and illustrated in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which–horror of horrors–text-based newspaper articles have been replaced with wholly pictorial representations of events.)

The purpose of this paper is to argue against the aesthetic myth of the given in theoretical terms and then on practical, pedagogical grounds as well. I hope to demonstrate why and how comics should be taught as part of a comprehensive program of media literacy instruction in schools and across content areas, and not just utilized as a mere transitional / remedial form introduced in order to hook “reluctant readers” on literature. Rather than being an unhappy medium or mere hybrid between prose and cinema, comics in their syncretism can embody the finest qualities of both while accomplishing things that neither books nor movies can successfully pull off. (An outstanding recent example: in Silver Surfer 11, Dan Slott and Mike Allred designed the page layout and narrative of the entire issue with the looping structure of a Möbius strip [Slott & Allred 2015].) We will begin by formalizing and critiquing the aesthetic myth of the given, proceed to defining and advocating for media literacy and adolescent literacy as such, and finally demonstrate how comics fulfill the key elements of media literacy instruction and explore their pedagogical implications in content areas across the curriculum. (Please note I’ve already covered cinematic media literacy through film history and theory in two previous essays.) While critics often prefer to hold up universally-acknowledged masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell as specimens of comics at their most refined and literary (read: wordy), I plan to focus on comics at their most ubiquitous and popular among adolescents, which is to say superhero and science fiction / fantasy comics. A significant amount of Japanese manga undoubtedly falls under these categories as well, but as I only have a passing familiarity with this genre, I will mostly concentrate on Western comics. And as an ardent and lifelong Marvel Comics fan, that publisher’s books are going to be given far more space and consideration than DC.

II. The Aesthetic Myth of the Given

Surely, there is an element of truth to the aesthetic myth of the given, at least with regard to reading. Speaking from personal experience, I possess what William Butler Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is why I find the prose of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and the poetry of Hart Crane and John Ashbery to be so deeply enjoyable and rewarding. And even the most ardent proponents of whole language reading instruction would agree that the apparently simple task of reading for comprehension is really an extraordinarily complex act, one that involves the decoding of signifiers–not just individual words, but also sentences, paragraphs, narratives, and megatexts or discourses–on multiple and simultaneous levels (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 12-15). Learning to read and write cannot be accomplished through cultural osmosis in the manner of learning to talk and understand speech; these skills must be actively taught or facilitated by an educator.

But the aesthetic myth of the given fails when it comes to comics and film, because meaning is no more immanent in images than in prose. In other words, just because a narrative is primarily told through images instead of text does not mean that processes of decoding and sense-making are absent in these mediums. The comprehension strategies of visualization and inferring are related but distinct: comics always-already provide us with visuals, but we must still do the inferring (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 130-132). Moreover, these interpretive processes are fundamentally learned behaviors; we only fail to recognize them because they take on essentially different rhetorical forms than the codes and modes of representation in literature. Although it’s undoubtedly easier to learn how to read a picture book or comic than a piece of prose, one is no more born knowing how to read comics by their arbitrary and sometimes contingent rules–to understand, for example, that every panel is a discrete temporal moment and spatial frame, or that one generally reads the pages and panels from left to right and top to bottom (Japanese manga, for example, is different in this regard)–than one is born knowing how to read text. Written texts generally make meaning through signification and symbolism, while drawn texts like comics primarily build meaning via dialectical juxtaposition and movement either within or between frames–or as it is called in film discourse, montage (Cousins 2011; Godard 1988; McCloud 1994).

Let us illustrate this distinction using a semi-hypothetical model from the musings of the film director Jean-Luc Godard. (Incidentally, along with his fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker Alain Resnais, Godard was a fan of populist comic books [Howe 2013].) When asked whether he ever considered becoming a writer, Godard replied:

Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it. (Brody 2008)

Written texts rely on signifiers, such as the word “train.” The letters t-r-a-i-n, when decoded as the word “train,” serve as more-or-less stable referent for the set of essential characteristics that describe a form of mass transportation that runs on rails. The arrangement of the opening sentences also creates meaning, because sentences and paragraphs are nothing more than higher-level signifiers; each of the two alternatives signifies a subtly different mental picture and limns a slightly different mood. This ability to make sense and meaning from letters and words that we call “reading” is nothing more than this process of decoding. By contrast, in a frame of film or in a panel of a comic, the images of a train and the weather–the visual diegesis–are near-instantaneously given to us in its sensuous immediacy. Does this indicate that meaning, too, is always-already given? No; this conclusion does not follow from the premises.

As Godard observed, the temporal and spatial simultaneity of images is a foundational principle of visual texts like comics and film. There is not necessarily any inherent meaning within the picture of the train and the rain, but there would be meaning if this picture were followed by, say, one of a businessman struggling with his heavy briefcase as he futilely chases after the train as it pulls away from the station. This juxtaposition between images–regardless of whether this juxtaposition was crafted through cross-cutting by editing between scenes, the horizontal motion traced by a tracking shot, or the absolute spatial continuity preserved by a long shot (although each alternative again suggests varying shades of meaning)–naturally leads the curious viewer to ask questions: Who is this man? Why did he miss the train? What is he running toward, and what is he running from? What’s in the briefcase? Regardless of the viewer’s predictions, the audience knows that the answers to these questions are likely to be clarified in scenes to come. And, in turn, avant-garde filmmakers would not be able to deliberately subvert our expectations if we didn’t have expectations to begin with–the inculcated set of rules which film theorist Noel Burch called the “institutional mode of representation” (Burch 1973).

However, comics are not subject to the institutional mode of representation to the degree that film is; there is more freedom, more slippage allowed within this medium. Noel Burch claimed that following the “primitive mode of representation,” films identify the viewer’s sight with that of the camera and utilize rules of three-dimensional perspective to make the diegetic space of the screen continuous with the viewer’s environment. Furthermore, each shot in a cinematic sequence–analogous to the individual frame of a comic–conveys a single piece of information. Close-ups, which focus inward on one discrete image, are perhaps the most salient example. However, close-ups briefly disrupt the aforementioned spatial continuity, so the latter quality must be preserved through eye-line and directional matches (Burch 1973). By contrast, while comics constantly zoom in and out between frames and utilize jump cuts and cross-cutting, eye-line and directional matches are not so important. In their radical compression and dilation of time and space, even humble superhero comics can be almost inadvertently avant-garde and psychedelic; their genealogical lineage is closer to the experimental Soviet, German, and French cinema that pre-dates or post-dates the institutional mode of representation than to the modern Hollywood blockbusters that superhero comics have inspired. 

Meaning, then, emerges from the cracks within and between images. It is not given, nor decoded from a single image, but dialectical or dialogical in same manner of the rhythm at the heart of film editing: shot-reverse-shot: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. With comics, this is obviously complicated by the presence of signifers in the form of dialogue, narration, and monologue, meaning that they are ultimately a form of aesthetic bricolage or assemblage of affects. But because the essential axis of a comic is its visual dimension and not its textual characteristics, the point still stands. (I.e., you can have a comic without text–indeed, there are many such “silent” comics, such as the remarkable woodcut novels of Lynd Ward, the phantasmagorical Frank stories by Jim Woodring, Shaun Tan’s classic picture book The Arrival, or even particular issues of ongoing series, like Jonathan Hickman’s moving Fantastic Four 588–but you can’t have a comic without pictures.) The aesthetics of painting, comics, and film emphatically do not comprise a kind of “visual language” whose semiotic structure and symbols can be delineated with any kind of consistency (at least not across spoken languages or cultures). By reducing the concept of literacy to the mere decoding of written language, the myth of the given thus serves to impoverish our world of aesthetic experience by obscuring visual / non-linguistic ways (in this case, montage) of constructing meaning.

Why is the aesthetic myth of the given so universal and so difficult to identify and critique? It almost certainly derives from class prejudice. Comics, being a rich and vibrant tradition with its origins as a working class art form, are automatically denigrated as simplistic trash for children, while the most aggressively mediocre works of prose fiction or nonfiction are elevated far beyond their actual stature or quality. (Indeed, newspapers used to publish stories with perennial regularity on the subject of: “Comics! They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore,” causing every comics professional / journalist alive to groan in unison [Rhoades 2008].) Comics are, to be sure, a populist medium (albeit one that’s more sophisticated and stylistically diverse than ever), but they don’t have to be lowbrow. At their best, comics embody what J. Hoberman once said about his fellow film critic Manny Farber: they short circuit the lowbrow with the highbrow and play both ends off the middlebrow (Farber 2009).

III. Comics and Media Literacy

If a school’s curriculum is something like a map, showing us the breadth and contours of its terrain, then media literacy is a sprawling, uncharted blank spot; it is terra incognita waiting to be explored with the depth this rich topic demands of us. Few public high schools (usually just some of the largest ones) offer a course or even a course unit in media literacy. The closest many schools come is a technology course on digital art–i.e. learning the basics of computer software for graphic design, animation, and audiovisual editing. In the digital art classes I’ve seen, a lesson on making comics was one component of the curriculum. These technology classes may be pragmatically useful, intellectually and creatively stimulating, and even innovative in curricular terms, but they are quite different from learning media literacy as such. If this subject is taught in its own right, it is almost invariably territorialized by the content area of language arts, which can sometimes lead to it being taught both inadequately and inaccurately. The end result is art that loses much of its medium specificity and aesthetic charm in translation.

It is my belief that public schools–whether at the middle school or high school level–need to start developing courses and thematic, interdisciplinary units in order to teach media literacy as part of the curriculum. Media literacy is defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education as being:

seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages. Media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of an increasingly wide range of messages using image, language, and sound. (NAMLE 2013)

And as a subset of media literacy, Nancy Frey and Douglas B. Fisher define visual literacy as:

describing the complex act of meaning making using still or moving images. As with reading comprehension, visually literate learners are able to make connections, determine importance, synthesize information, evaluate, and critique. Further, these visual literacies are interwoven with textual ones, so that their interaction forms the basis for a more complete understanding. The twenty-first-century learner must master this intermediality of images and text in order to interpret an increasingly digital world. (Frey & Fisher 2008 p.1)

What is “the visual interwoven with the textual” but a description of the form and content of a graphic novel?

While budget cuts and the standards-based education movement have led to a drastic reduction in the art classes and electives that schools offer to students, there are several conceptual and empirical reasons that support my arguments about the importance of media literacy instruction. Increasingly, adolescents are surrounded by screens and omnipresent media images for almost every waking moment of their days. Their lives are always-already mediated, but they nonetheless have little idea as to how one can contextualize, analyze, and evaluate visual texts like comics. (This would hopefully not be the case with written texts, which they will have studied for many years by the time they graduate from high school.) And without being able to properly contextualize, analyze, and evaluate, one cannot move to the level of media critique for which many theorists of media literacy advocate. I believe that critical media literacy is a public good; it is particularly invaluable in the process of coming to political consciousness which Paulo Freire termed conscientization. In Freire’s words, media literacy helps us to “read the world” (Freire 1968).

Media literacy is thus a natural component of the expansive definition of adolescent literacy proffered by Moje, Young, and Readence (2000). Adolescent literacy refers to both the practices of reading and the body of texts and discourses that adolescents encounter in their daily lives. At its narrowest, it includes school-based literate activity: namely, the books that adolescents are expected to read, discuss, and write about as part of their formal education, as well as the works they choose to read voluntarily (young adult or otherwise). At its most broadly conceived, however, adolescent literacy encompasses multiple emerging extracurricular mediated literacies: magazines, newspapers, advertisements, emails, text messages, social media, the web, music, film, video games, comics, etc. Neither most adults nor many adolescents themselves consider the more ephemeral of these mediums and forms of communication to be legitimate literary practices, but their very ubiquity and invisibility is what makes them such important supplements in the contemporary language arts classroom. Through the use of media literacy as a subset of adolescent literacy, teachers can a) demonstrate that their students are always-already literate and possess reading skills and knowledge in a number of alternative, informal ways, b) connect students’ informal literacies back to formal literacy practices in and out of schools, and c) make their own instructional practices more culturally and generationally relevant (Moje et al. 2000).

As Carrye Kay Syma and Robert G. Weiner note in their book on Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom (to my view, possibly the best work on the subject), “sequential art, cartoons, comics, and graphic novels are not a genre, they are a format and a technique for telling a story or conveying information. […] [C]omics are a form of social history that can be used to impart knowledge about a particular era.” In other words, comics are an artistic medium rather than the determinate content thereof. They go to claim that “In the past 10 to 15 years, the use of sequential art in education has exploded. […] It is no longer a question of whether sequential art should be used in educational settings, but rather how to use it and for what purpose” (2013 p. 1). Finally, Syma and Weiner connect comics back to media literacy in precisely the same terms and arguments I have utilized:

In today’s transmedia culture, the concept of just what it means to be educated and literate continues to change and mutate. […] The combination of images with text in order for students to understand and interpret the world is probably the most important aspect of teaching literacy in the 21st century. […]

Sequential art, of course, usually combines both the visual and the narrative in a way that readers have to interpret the images with the writing. With comics and graphic novels permeating all aspects of popular culture and the world it is almost impossible for even those who disdain the format to not be touched by it (for example, in 2012, The Avengers was one of the biggest movies in the history of popular culture, and its source material is comics). Even those who may never pick up a comic for pleasure reading or analysis are still touched by the world of comics. Comics are probably one of the purest forms an educator could use to teach visual literacy.

One of the things that make comics such a good fit for education is that students are using a format that provides an opportunity for active engagement. Their minds are lively when reading comics. The readers involve their minds with both the visual and narrative content, hopefully resulting in greater comprehension and interest. (Syma & Weiner 2013 p. 15)

In the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to ignore all forms of literacy except for printed text on a page. While comics should not serve as a substitute for all of these other forms of media literacy, they remain one of the most exciting and fruitful ways to teach and learn about this subject. In the following section, we will explore some specific pedagogical implications of comics in several separate content areas or domains.

IV. Comics and Pedagogy

Since comics as an artistic medium are inherently interdisciplinary, formal instruction on the subject would need to mirror this content in its very form. Thus, one could easily build exciting curricular connections and thematic units between language arts (studying comics and reading / writing criticism thereof); visual art (making comics and exploring their history); and social studies, science, and technology. Comics have pedagogical implications and applications across the spectrum of a school’s curriculum, and we will demonstrate this by examining each of these content areas in turn.

A. Language Arts

One of the elements of comics that I find most interesting is that of narrative compression. For example, the iconic origin story of Spider-Man as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy 15 is a masterpiece of compression; they constructed a complete, compelling, and self-contained story in a mere eleven pages. It’s fast-paced, showing the viewers only the most crucial scenes as it swings to its climactic denouement. When Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley retold and greatly expanded upon this simple narrative for a new generation at the beginning of their Ultimate Spider-Man series, it took them a seven issue story arc of about twenty pages per issue–or roughly one hundred forty pages total, over ten times as long as the original (Morrison 2012 p. 96). This is not to say, however, that the slower pace of modern comics is necessarily inferior to the seminal works of the 1960s. On the contrary, this “decompressed” approach allows for a greater naturalism and flexibility, an increased focus on character development and dialogue, and a reduction in repetitive, overbearing narration and expository direct addresses to the reader. Indeed, nostalgia often prevents us from seeing just how well-written the average modern comic is to the comics of yesteryear. (Unnecessary sound effects are, alas, still with us.) But regardless of how much space and time is covered in a certain span of pages, comics rely upon compression, on the viewer’s knowledge that one is traveling through time as one’s eyes scan across from panel to panel. Compression is a feature, not a bug. It’s impossible to depict a continuity of motion on pages as film is capable of showing (through the fusion frequency of twenty-four frames per second), so comics can only select representative high points of the action.

The beauty of compression is that it forces the reader to make inferences–Scott McCloud calls it “closure,” in that in involves closing the gap between parts that comprise a whole–about what happens in the interstitial gutters between panels or the margins between pages; reading comics is thus a fundamentally participatory act (McCloud 1994; Yang 2008). (Also, for what it’s worth, Robert Brandom’s “inferential role semantics” and meaning holism as an influential school of pragmatist thought in analytic philosophy, derives in part from the work of Wilfrid Sellars [Brandom 1994, 2000, 2015]. In other words, linguistic inferentialism comprises a powerful challenge to the aesthetic myth of the given.) Language arts teachers spend much of their time trying to get students to consciously make predictions–which are one type of inference–about the future events of a work of prose fiction, when comics already do this quite naturally (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 141). This is also the quality that makes them a powerful pedagogical tool in the multilingual classroom, as English-language learners can infer the meaning of vocabulary words from reading them in the context of images (Cary 2004).

To demonstrate inferences from narrative compression, we might turn to the opening of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve-part All-Star Superman, an elegant, wordless two-page spread recapitulating the essential, instantly-recognizable elements of Superman’s origin story, compressed to its mythic core (Morrison & Quitely 2011). Like hearing the first few notes of a familiar melody, viewing these pages prompts the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own memory. A more recent and even better instance would be Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez’s immensely clever and amusing Edge of Spider-Verse 2. In an alternate universe story about a world in which Gwen Stacy–Spider-Man’s late girlfriend in mainstream Marvel continuity–and not Peter Parker himself is the one bitten by the radioactive spider, Latour and Rodriguez accelerate through Spider-Gwen’s origin story in a two-page montage, much like Morrison and Quitely. Unlike these two creators’ work, however, Latour’s script is more like an improvisation upon an old standard than a faithful cover version. The reader scans the rapid editing between this alluring display of images, inferring from each one the key divergences between the respective histories of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen, with the former serving as a kind of aporia, an absent center, around which the latter is constructed.

One of the finest examples of inferentialism in comics as a pedagogical tool for the language arts classroom, however, might be Matt Fraction and David Aja’s delightful, award-winning Hawkeye 11–otherwise known as “Pizza Is My Business” (Fraction & Aja 2013). A near-wordless issue shown from the perspective of Hawkeye’s pizza-loving dog, Lucky, as he pieces together the subtle clues of a murder mystery from the previous issue, Aja conveys information through Lucky’s associations of characters with distinct scents, which are represented through networks of thumbnail graphics. The only pieces of dialogue we are allowed to see are the words that a dog might know or understand, so without words to assist us in making sense of the sequence of pictures, we must work harder to infer the connections between clues and make predictions alongside our unlikely protagonist. It’s a totally satisfying narrative in and of itself (although one needs to have read the previous issues for context), and as an experiment in representing nonhuman perception, it demands multiple readings. I, as an adult, find something new to discover and appreciate every time. Fraction and Aja also constructed a terrific follow-up in Hawkeye 19, another nearly silent issue in which spoken dialogue and word balloons are replaced with sign language. Taken together, they are a magnificent demonstration of the power of comics to elicit reader participation in constructing meaning through inferences. Not only do comics appeal to reluctant readers, they also work to teach the literacy skills we associate with conscientious readers and desire to inculcate in our students.

One activity language arts teachers might employ is to engage students in “translating” a written script to a page or spread of a comic–or, conversely, to deduce the script from the comic representation thereof. By comparing and contrasting various students’ pictorial interpretations of a particular printed script (and perhaps also viewing them alongside a professional comic artist’s adaptation in a published comic book), students can gain a better understanding of how there can be multiple valid visual representations of a given textual diegesis, and that each version conveys different shades of meaning. Moreover, aspiring students of creative writing can learn a great deal about naturalistic, witty dialogue from the work of such writers as Brian Michael Bendis, Al Ewing, and Matt Fraction, and they can gain an understanding of narrative structure and pacing from Jonathan Hickman or Rick Remender.

Comics also allow language arts teachers to introduce students to the concept of flat vs. rounded characters. Most superheroes-as-protagonists are defined by a set of key personality attributes and traits, but conversely they also grow and change–if slowly–over time, adding depth and turning them from flat into rounded characters. The sheer accumulated volume of publication means that once-simple characters have become, issue by issue, complex and compelling creations (Wolk 2008). Other, more minor characters and supervillains, however, are more liable to be flat and static as they continually revert back to their original status quo.

Including comics studies in the language arts classroom might also involve reading and writing criticism of comics. Douglas Wolk’s work serves as an intelligent and wide-ranging introduction to the field, while Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith capably put comics in historical, artistic, and political-economic context in their textbook on the subject (Wolk 2008; Duncan & Smith 2009). Finally, the two academic volumes edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester bring together some of the most crucial theoretical and critical texts in the nascent field of “comics studies” in a pair of serious and thought-provoking anthologies (2008, 2013).

B. Visual Art

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud accurately points out that the history of comics stretches back centuries (even millennia) further than we might imagine; Greco-Roman sculptures, Egyptian and Mesoamerican picture narratives, and medieval tapestries all tell stories through the sequential juxtaposition of images (McCloud 1994). Exploring such connections between contemporary superhero comics and the art of the ancient world might get students interested in learning more about art history and mythology. Furthermore, discussing how a single panel of a comic represents a moment in a greater narrative is a wonderful way of introducing the visual literacy skills necessary to comprehend figurative / representative painting. By examining their overall color schemes and use of light and dark, specific penciling and inking techniques or brushwork, tensions and balances of framing and perspective, selection and deployment of specific detail, grasp of the human anatomy, and capture of movement and emotion through gesture and expression, we can learn to analyze the meaning and evaluate the quality of paintings and drawings as well as narrative comics. And just as the works of Edward Hopper have been compared to stills from film noir movies, paintings often suggest a larger story extending beyond the confines of the frame. Again, the very open-endedness they share with comics is what leads the viewer to make inferences and predictions.

Comics can also demonstrate the differences between Western and non-Western art and the historical trends within each tradition. While comics still generally abide by the Renaissance conventions of representation (like three-dimensional perspective), their vibrant dynamism and hyperreal exaggerations mark them as products of artistic Modernism and / or Postmodernism. In recent years, superhero comics (particularly those published by Marvel) have moved away from cinematic, detail-heavy mimetic realism to a smoother, more stylized, flattened-out graphic approach.

Other series might serve to illustrate the influence of artistic movements upon wider popular culture. Grant Morrison’s career in independent comics alone serves as a superb illustration. In its boundless overflowing of mad creativity, his Doom Patrol (with Richard Case, among others) is a mindbending journey of surrealism and psychedelia. Morrison’s Flex Mentallo (with Frank Quitely), The Invisibles (with a rotating cast of artists), and The Filth (with Chris Weston) verge on pop art, while Animal Man (with Chas Truog) is realism spiced with metafictional, postmodern self-reflexivity. His brilliant, thrilling, and heartbreaking We3 (with Frank Quitely) is “Western manga,” combining a kind of inhuman naturalism with a Modernist fracturing of space and time, while Seaguy (with Cameron Stewart) and Vimanarama (with Philip Bond) hearken back to the glory days of Jack Kirby in their retro stylings while bringing in influences from Disney cartoons and Indian culture, respectively.

Finally, visual art classes can teach children to make their own comics to tell stories–either adaptations of pre-existing narratives from literature or stories that students create on their own in order to express themselves (McCloud 2006). As mentioned above, many digital arts classes already instruct students in how to create comics and animations using various software programs and apps found on the web.

C. Social Studies, Science, and Technology

Superhero comics often strive for relevance within contemporary pop culture–they reflect the time period in which they were created–so they can be utilized in the classroom as an index to broader sociocultural shifts (Syma & Weiner 2013). Many social studies classes already make extensive use of political cartoons, so delving further into graphic narratives makes sense, too. For example, Captain America can tell us something about perceptions of the United State’s role in World War II and other conflicts, while the X-Men have always served as a literalized metaphor for prejudice and discrimination–toward racial and sexual minorities, for example–of all kinds. Sean Howe’s totally engrossing Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a hilarious and often horrifying chronicle that engages with such issues as the class struggle, U.S. labor and business history in the twentieth century, the contributions of immigrants and religious / ethnic / racial minorities to American culture, the impact of drugs and sixties / seventies psychedelia upon society, moral panics and political anxieties, conflicts between creativity and copyright, and the uneasy relationship between commerce and art (2013). Moving from straight history to a sui generis work blending subjective history, criticism, philosophy, and memoir, Grant Morrison’s entertaining Supergods (2012) is a mind-expanding look into what comics can tell us about the (post-)human condition. Finally, David Hajdu’s work on comics in the fifties and sixties gives us great insight into the history of censorship in the United States (2008). The website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group that promotes and protects First Amendment liberties, also contains many detailed resources on banned and challenged books (CBLDF 2015).

It’s worth noting that in recent years, Marvel’s superhero comics have become more diverse (both stylistically and in terms of representation) than ever. In addition to all of the original, classic characters, there’s now a biracial Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a female Thor, a female Captain Marvel, a Pakistani-American (and Muslim) Ms. Marvel, a Korean-American Spider-Woman, a Hispanic Ghost Rider, and several gay or bisexual Young Avengers and X-Men. Having such an egalitarian cast of characters can allow previously excluded minorities to hear their own unique voices, to see themselves reflected–as heroes instead of sidekicks or villains–in the media they consume. At their best, superhero comics can widen the circle of our empathy and inspire us to create a more tolerant society.

Scott McCloud suggests in his Reinventing Comics that webcomics–which are not bound to the dimensions of a printed page–can give creators the freedom to sprawl out in multiple directions, to play with the representation of space and time (2000). But regardless of whether comic is published on paper or on a screen, all comics allow the reader to pause, rewind, and fast forward, to play with the subjective flow of time. This is exactly the quality that makes them so ideal for conveying information regarding science and technology. As Syma and Weiner note, a growing number of high school and college textbooks and “graphic guides” on various academic subjects utilize comics as a concise and elegant way of explaining concepts, one that lends itself to repeated viewings for the purpose of studying or memorization (2013). In many ways, superhero comics actually anticipated this by overlaying pictures with explanatory text that referred the reader to the numbers of previous issues for context, in a kind of primitive augmented reality.

(Speaking of memorization–anyone who thinks superhero comic books are light reading with low cognitive demands on the reader likely has not read one lately, for few genres require the reader to file away and recall later as much minutiae and trivia from decades of relevant backstory as this one does!)

V. Conclusion

Artistic innovation flows upward, from the lowbrow to the highbrow, as often as it trickles downward in the reverse direction. With regard to graphic novels, the subtle innovations of Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware–to name some of the “prestige” comics creators acclaimed by the literary mainstream–often pale in comparison to the splashy psychedelic hyperrealism and radical reinventions of both form and content that can be found in the humble superhero comic. Panel after panel, page after page, too many graphic novels limit themselves to repetitive foresquare panels and staid rectangular page layouts, with a kind of lazy middlebrow naturalism (perhaps gleaned more from television or film than from the history of comics) serving to render them aesthetically conservative or even downright stodgy.

In his “theoretical fiction about postmodernism,” Doom Patrols (which was in turn inspired by the eponymous series by Grant Morrison), the theorist and critic Steven Shaviro points out that comic books have a curiously bifurcated nature:

The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content. (Shaviro 1996)

When I first entered the world of comic books and graphic novels, I assumed that superhero comics were merely a text to be critiqued, deconstructed, or parodied rather than appreciated in their own right. This attitude, which was no doubt borne of reading postmodern works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen before I ever encountered a single superhero comic, prevented me from perceiving and entering into the “living conversation” surrounding the medium (Buehler 2009). As Shaviro alludes to above, there are already expansive subterranean literacies–such as letter columns in the back of single issues, online forums devoted to comics, and comic book shops themselves–in which adolescents and adults can engage in passionate discussion and debate. For example, if one enters a chain bookstore, one is unlikely to overhear customers and staff members talking animatedly about the merits of individual creators, characters, titles, and storylines, but when one walks into a comic book store, this is exactly what one might reasonably expect to immediately encounter. As a form of collaborative storytelling and mass readership, comics are perhaps unique in inspiring more devotion, attention to detail, and vociferous praise and criticism, than any other text-based medium. As educators, we need only reject or revise our aesthetic assumptions and myths (which, in the last instance, often amount to sociocultural ones) about what constitutes literature and, indeed, the act of reading itself, in order to access this rich and colorful discourse and to encourage a new generation of media literate citizens.

This essay is dedicated to Nich Boyd–for getting me back into comics. Thank you also to my local comic book store, Nostalgia Ink. 

VI. Works Cited

Archer, J. (Producer), & Cousins, M. (Director). (2011). The story of film [Motion picture]. Ireland: Hopscotch Films.

Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2015). From empiricism to expressivism: Brandom reads Sellars. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brody, R. (2008). Everything is cinema: The working life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Da Capo.

Buehler, J. (2009). Ways to join the living conversation about young adult literature. The English Journal 98(3), 26-32.

Burch, N. (1973). Theory of film practice. New York: Praeger.

Cary, S. (2004). Going graphic: Comics in the multilingual classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

CBLFD. (2015). Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved from

Duncan, R. & Smith, M.J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form, and culture. New York: Continuum.

Farber, M. (2009). Farber on film: The complete film writings of Manny Farber. New York: Library of America.

Fraction, M. & Aja, D. et al. (2013). Hawkeye vol. 2: Little hits. New York: Marvel.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Frey, N. & Fischer, D.B. (2008). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Godard, J-L. (Director). (1988-1998). Histoire(s) du cinéma [Motion picture]. France: Gaumont.

Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hatfield, C., Heer, J., & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2013). The superhero reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Heer, J. & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2008). A comics studies reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Howe, S. (2013). Marvel comics: The untold story. New York: Harper Perennial.

Latour, J. & Rodriguez, R., et al. (2015). The amazing Spider-Man: Edge of spider-verse. New York: Marvel.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing comics: How imagination and technology are revolutionizing an art form. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2006). Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels. New York: William Morrow.

Moje, E.B., Young, J.P., Readence, J.E., & Moore, D.W. (2000, February). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 400-410.

Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Morrison, G. & Quitely, F. (2011). All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics.

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2013). Media Literacy Defined. Retrieved from

Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shaviro, S. (1996). Doom patrols: A theoretical fiction about postmodernism. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Slott, D. & Allred, M. (2015). Silver Surfer vol. 3: Last days. New York: Marvel.

Syma, C.K. & Weiner, R.G. (Eds.). (2013). Graphic novels and comics in the classroom: Essays on the educational power of sequential art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Wolk, D. (2008). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean. New York: Da Capo.

Yang, G. (2009). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts 85(3), 135-140.

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A Madison Cawein Sesquicentennial

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Today, March 23, 2015, is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Madison Julius Cawein. To celebrate–and to enact a little more “poetic justice”–my dad had these beautiful stamps made with Madison’s image:

Madison Cawein stamps

Here is a close-up of the image of Madison at work:

Madison Cawein Sesquicentennial

Finally, we also purchased a flower arrangement for Madison’s grave in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Two pictures follow below:

Madison Cawein flowers 1

Madison Cawein flowers 2

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Recommended Music 2014

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[see also: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015]

1. The Lowland Hundred–The Lowland Hundred

  • Our Love–Caribou
  • “Falling Asleep / Orpheus Avenue”–The Clientele
  • “Julia / Tiberius”–Daphni / Owen Pallett
  • Nothing Important–Richard Dawson
  • Primitive and Deadly–Earth
  • Bécs–Fennesz
  • Inherent Vice–Jonny Greenwood
  • Houston Saturday, Ghost Passing, & Houston Saturday 2011Jandek
  • Under the Skin–Mica Levi
  • Mess--Liars
  • N–Nisennenmondai
  • Surface Image–Tristan Perich & Vicky Chow
  • Lese Majesty–Shabazz Palaces
  • Terrestrials–Sunn O))) & Ulver
  • Detour–Toshiya Tsunoda & Manfred Werder
  • No. 2–Christina Vantzou
  • SousedScott Walker & Sunn O)))
  • Out of Range–Jana Winderen
  • AtomosA Winged Victory for the Sullen
  • Tomorrow’s Modern BoxesThom Yorke
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An Interview With The Lowland Hundred

By Spencer Cawein Pate

The Welsh band The Lowland Hundred make the kind of music I dream about, music I have longed for even before it came into existence. After reading Rob Young’s characteristically astute and enticing review of their most recent release in the pages of The Wire, I immediately purchased and listened to their three albums to date–Under Cambrian Sky (2010), Adit (2011), and The Lowland Hundred (2014). To say that I was impressed is putting it very mildly. The Lowland Hundred seamlessly blends nature recordings and spare instrumentation into suites of drifting, pastoral songs that glow with spectral light. (Had I heard The Lowland Hundred before I compiled my “Ecological Music 15” chart for The Wire, they absolutely would have been accorded a prominent place on that list.) Since their extraordinary third album is my favorite record of 2014 so far, I decided to interview The Lowland Hundred’s multi-instrumentalist Tim Noble and vocalist Paul Newland to learn more about their utterly distinctive approach to crafting music. My questions and their insightful and detailed responses can be read below.

SCP: I greatly enjoyed viewing your exquisite photographs of the Welsh landscapes that inspire your music as I listened to The Lowland Hundred–although your music conjures a keen sense of time and place even without the benefit of photography. Could you elaborate on some of the psychogeographical and personal connections between your surroundings and your art?

TN: Paul and I are English.  I moved to Aberystwyth in 2006 when my wife took up a lecturing post at the University.  Aberystwyth and the wider county of Ceredigion had a powerful, entirely unexpected and pretty much immediate emotional impact on me.  I spent the first 30 years of my life in the East Midlands of England and, by the end, I was utterly sick of it.  I was ready for a change in my life and I found that change in Aberystwyth.  It’s a dramatic way of putting it, but I fell in love with the place from the moment I arrived–the sea, the mountains, the sunsets…  It was so different to the East Midlands, so wild and exciting.  When I met Paul some two years after I’d first arrived, I was still absolutely besotted with the place and I was very lucky to have the chance to relive my own early encounters with the area through his early encounters.   What you see in the photographs and hear in the music is someone finding their way in new, unfamiliar surroundings.  The photographs are documents of early visits to places that would become important to the music; they are visual notes, research material.  Neither of us spends hours gazing at the photographs afterwards but, for me, the act of taking a photograph helps to fix in my memory the emotions I felt in that place at that time.  When composing the music, those emotions are that much easier to draw on and convert to sound.

PN: I think I’ve certainly been influenced by psychogeography to a certain extent. A decade or so ago I discovered the work of Iain Sinclair, and I was really struck by what he did imaginatively with the Hawksmoor churches in London (among other things), which of course was later echoed by Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore. I know Tim was interested in this too. Guy Debord talked about the notion that places can have an impact on the emotions of an individual, and that people can find ways of creating a new awareness of a place, and find new paths. That certainly struck me as a useful (and fun) way of engaging with Aberystwyth when I first moved here and met up with Tim, who was so obviously fascinated with the place. But we never made a conscious decision to make ‘psychogeographical music’, and indeed the term ‘psychogeography’ feels rather exhausted now (as all terms do after a while). We just wanted to find a way to work together as writers initially, and luckily we had the idea to write about this incredible place that we both found ourselves in. No doubt some of these ‘psychogeographical’ ideas found their way in subconsciously, though.

SCP: Far from being wholly impressionistic and reflective, there’s a really lovely–even scientific–specificity and realism to your band’s lyrics and use of nature recordings. What is the role of these sedimented layers of memory, history, and mythology in your process of crafting music?

TN: This is in no way aimed at you, Spencer, because you didn’t mention it, but it’s galling how many people waste space recycling readily available information about Cantre’r Gwaelod (the mythical Welsh place from which we take our name) and almost completely gloss over the music.  The myth is important to us only in the sense that it reminds us of the way people have created stories around this landscape since ancient times.

Our music wouldn’t exist without memory: the starting point for all our music is the memory of an emotion experienced during a first encounter with a particular place.  We research the history only after feeling moved to write about a particular place.  Even then, we prefer to examine the history as if it were the memory of a character.

PN: I quite liked the idea of specifying the names of some of the trees and flowers and sea life of the area in the lyrics, for example, as, above all else, there is a certain ineffable, magical quality to some of the words used for these things! Often you would walk past a flower on a path or see a small fish in the sea without looking twice at it, but if you discover its Latin name you somehow feel differently about it. I think this is linked to how we might see / feel places differently if we make the effort. I also really enjoyed the challenge of singing these lines and trying to invest them with a level of emotion. In terms of memory, history and mythology, I think we were more interested in making and recording our own experiences and then evoking our subsequent memories of places, above all else.

SCP: Do you see yourself working more in a tradition of folk music or one of post-rock / hauntology? Or do you view those subgenres as essentially stemming from the same impulse?

TN: It’s for other people to decide which tradition we’re working in.  We’re aware of traditions, but we focus on using the skills we have to make music that reflects the people and the landscape around us.  If someone thinks we sound like band X or belong to tradition Y, I consider that a failure on my part.

For a while, I quite liked the whole hauntological genre as a casual listener but, nowadays, I hope it’s dying out.  Its early exponents were creative and imaginative but, in recent times, it’s grown into something ridiculous.  There was a time, coinciding with the release of Berberian Sound Studio, that my Twitter feed was full of mentions of preposterously named and eminently spoofable acts–Tiswas Scrying Unit, TDK Investigation Bureau etc.–who seemed to be offering nothing more than a collection of hackneyed musical tropes recycled from British children’s TV of the 1970s.

In the UK, folk and hauntology both stem from an impulse to curate the past.  I have very little interest in this as a consumer and absolutely zero interest in it as a producer.  With so much music and film of the past now available to us, I accept that we live in “haunted” times, but mixing analogue synth, tape hiss and cloying whimsy is a lazy, reductive way to communicate how it really feels to be alive today.

PN: While I love folk music and I like a lot of so-called post-rock music, Tim and I never really discussed genres, and I think we were probably resistant to making music that might in any way be genre specific. As Tim says, we were interested in the here and now (but at the same time how the past informs our experiences of the here and now in a specific place). Of course people will hear some influences in the music (as in all music), and that’s fine by me, but we basically wanted to come up with a sound world that might capture how these places in west Wales made us feel, in the moment. Personally I’ve no real interest in hauntology as a musical movement or subculture.

SCP: Outside of more obvious precursors like Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, and Disco Inferno, have you also been influenced by classical music? What about British folk-rock and psychedelia? Are their any particular poets or prose writers you admire who have left their mark on your music and lyrics?

TN: I don’t really listen to music that much but,  over the last 10 years, when I have done, I’ve mainly listened to classical music.  Here in Britain, we’re extremely fortunate to have BBC Radio 3, which is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in classical music.  I’d go as far as to say it’s an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in music.  I spent the daily commute to work and the weekly commute to Aberystwyth–my wife lived here for 3 years before I was able to move–tuned to Radio 3 and discovered a world of music that I always suspected existed, but had never previously found a way to engage with.  I’m confident that, without classical music and the access to it afforded by Radio 3, I would not be typing these words now.

I’m sure every second of these records is the product of books I’ve read over the years, but two authors in particular made a huge impression.  The first is David Toop, whose Ocean of Sound introduced me to some music with which I was completely unfamiliar but, perhaps more importantly, it shamed me into engaging with, and subsequently falling for, some music I’d previously dismissed.  The second author is a local man, Erwyd Howells.  I chanced across his book Good Men And True–part memoir, part personal history of the shepherds of Mid Wales–while I was in the local petrol station one Saturday.  I bought it instantly and I didn’t put it down for about a year.  It fills places I know only as desolate valleys or crumbling ruins with light and laughter.  His style is unstudied, personal and, as such, it makes for an engaging and utterly enchanting book.

PN: I listen to classical music, and I love a lot of British folk rock and psychedelia, but in terms of specific artists, and for that matter writers / poets who might have left a mark, there are simply too many to mention. I spend as much time making music as I do listening to it, really. And I spend a lot more time reading and watching films than listening to music. Talk Talk get mentioned a lot with us. I remember my brother buying the first Talk Talk album when it came out in the early 80s when we were kids, and between us we bought all their subsequent records. Spirit of Eden in particular had a huge influence on me but also the musicians I was working with in various bands around northeast London in the late 80s. But so did Prince and Sonic Youth! I don’t particularly hear Talk Talk in what the LH do, but if others do I’m not at all unhappy about it. Indeed, I find it fascinating. Mark Hollis is somebody I admire. Above all else he is a wonderful singer.

SCP: The press materials for your latest album mention the “haunted middle-aged doubt” of the underrated Scottish band The Blue Nile as a possible reference point for your sound. I can definitely hear the commonality with Paul Buchanan’s vocals, but I was also wondering if that band’s musique concrete approach to pop was another inspiration for the way in which you construct your songs?

TN: The press materials were drawn up by the label and whatever they want to say to sell the record is fine by me.  I’d never heard a record by The Blue Nile before people started mentioning them in connection with us and I’ll certainly not listen to one now.  If writers draw comparisons between us and another act, I avoid their music altogether.  I first heard Laughing Stock in early 2009 and I was quite enjoying it until the persistent and widespread comparisons to Talk Talk meant I had to stop listening to it.  I’m still baffled by those comparisons.  My ears must be defective because I hear a band that is completely at odds with us.  Their subject matter is vague and universal where ours is unashamedly specific and local.  Hollis had a deep, powerful voice where Paul’s is high and delicate.  Furthermore, the bedrock of the Talk Talk sound is pulse and groove, anchored so brilliantly by Lee Harris’s drumming; our music has nothing more than a fleeting acquaintance with pulse and groove.  I’d like to meet Mark Hollis one day.  I would apologise and reassure him that a) I cannot hear the similarities myself and b) sounding like his band was never on the list of things I wanted to achieve in music.  Hollis’s retirement and subsequent silence created a void and we’re just one of the many bands people are busy cramming in to fill it.

PN: The press material was not put together by us, so it reflects how somebody else heard our music. But while the label wouldn’t have known this, I have known of (and rather liked) The Blue Nile for many years, and I really loved Paul Buchanan’s recent solo album Mid Air. I can’t really hear a clear connection between the LH and The Blue Nile, though. Their music is very electronic and has a rather straight-ahead rhythmic style (the use of Linn equipment), and it seems very connected to Scotland, and Glasgow in particular. I also can’t really hear a connection between my voice and Buchanan’s, but there is an honesty about his performances that I really like and indeed admire–a lack of showboating, and a tangible sense of genuine emotion. But I do accept that there is a sense of melancholy to some of our music (and a slowness) that might also be found to a certain extent in Buchanan’s music and TBN. Having said all this, though, I wasn’t thinking about or indeed listening to Paul Buchanan when we wrote and recorded these records.

SCP: The nature recordings are seamlessly incorporated into the mix; when I first listened to your music outside, I couldn’t easily tell what was coming from inside my headphones and what was emanating from outside. There’s such clarity with which you capture every nuance of the instrumentation, too. I was wondering if you could describe both your process of gathering field recordings and that of folding them into the structures of your songs as they are recorded.

TN: That’s very kind of you, Spencer.  Thank you.  As with the photographs, field recordings often date back to early encounters with a place.  I moved to Aberystwyth from Nottingham, a city in England, and, when I arrived, I instantly embraced the novelty of teetering along coastal paths or kicking through fallen leaves in remote woodland.  Aberystwyth afforded me space to think and peace and quiet to listen and, gradually, as I walked around, I found myself hearing sounds that would blend with the instrumental and vocal ideas Paul and I were developing.

Capturing those sounds was frequently a case of good fortune: I’d be bumbling along somewhere, trailing recording gear like some low-rent astronaut on the surface of an alien world, and I’d hear something interesting, then there’d be a mad scramble to get the microphone and recorder working, followed by a period of silent prayer that the sound would return.  Sometimes I’d hear a sound when I didn’t have the recorder and mic with me, and I’d have no choice but to drive back to the location in which I’d first heard the sound in the hope of recapturing it.  A lot of the sounds on these albums were actually recorded at night, with me silently cursing myself off-mic for not bringing the equipment along earlier in the day.

I fold the field recordings into the albums as if they’re instrumental passages.  For example, I may decide I require a high-pitched shrieking in a certain section of a song: this could be served by my electric guitar or I could opt for a recording of the shrieking, creaking garden gate outside my house.  The recording of my gate plays the same role as a guitar would in terms of pitch yet, at the same time, as a sound from the place and the time in which the album is set, it brings with it an extra layer of meaning.

I’ve also found that the field recordings serve as a way to sew memory into the fabric of the albums.  I’ve used a particular recording of children playing in local woods across all three albums.  I noticed recently that I applied more distortion and processing to the recording each time I used it.  I think I was trying to tell myself to remember just how quickly a trivial event can become a cherished memory and how quickly that memory can fade.

SCP: It strikes me that the lyrics of all three of your albums display a strong awareness of human mortality and the transience of nature and climate. Do you consider your music to express ecological or conservationist themes?

TN: I’m ambivalent towards the issue of conservation, but I’m absolutely fascinated by people in a landscape.  I like the fact that the mediaeval castle still looms over me as I walk along Aberystwyth’s Victorian promenade, but I also like the fact that teenagers are hidden among its walls smoking dope and drinking strong white cider.  I would rather the castle be a part of the lives of people today than have someone rebuild it with modern materials, erect a steel fence around it, and charge visitors £10 to look at failed drama students huffing and puffing through lacklustre recreations of mediaeval combat.

PN: We are middle-aged men–and at least one of us is a melancholy soul (!)–so yes, the music might express an awareness of mortality, as such–but not just human mortality. I don’t think the music expresses conservationist or ecological themes, per se. I am reluctant to consider the ‘human’ as somehow divorced from ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’. Perhaps as such you could argue that there is a kind of ‘deep ecological’ aspect to what we do. I’m with Tim on conservation–I’m rather ambivalent about it and often suspicious of some of the ideologies that drive it. But, again, we were primarily interested in trying to articulate the particular ‘feel’ of a place–its emotional force. Everything stemmed from that.

SCP: What contemporary musicians and bands do you feel closest to, or consider to be your thematic / aesthetic compatriots?

TN: For me, one and one only.  Hallock Hill.  He’s a native of New York who I first met through Twitter in 2010.  I don’t listen to much music at all but, finding him to be a friendly, fascinating human being, when he subsequently mentioned that he was a musician, I listened to his music out of courtesy.  It still remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  He shares The LH’s fascination with time, memory and landscape, but he has his own, uniquely American take on those themes.  In the four years since I first listened to his music, I have released two of his albums through my label, Hundred Acre Recordings (collaborating with him directly on one of them), I’ve played live with him on Jersey City’s WFMU, The LH played a recent double-header with him at London’s Cafe OTO, and I’ve met up with him socially in London, New York and Chicago.  He is as fine a human being as he is a musician and I consider him a friend for life.

PN:  I don’t really feel close to any contemporary bands or musicians other than, perhaps–as Tim says–Hallock Hill (who is brilliant). It isn’t really easy to talk about ‘thematic/aesthetic compatriots’–that’s for other people to think about if they want to. But as somebody who is fascinated by the art of songwriting (and how it functions now), it would be remiss of me not to say that in recent years Joanna Newsom, Justin Vernon, Gillian Welch, Jeff Tweedy and Mark Kozelek in particular have really impressed me.

SCP: How do you translate your music from your records to live performance? It seems like it would be difficult to maintain the sonic balance of your albums.

TN: You’re quite right: the music is very much a studio creation.  Studio technology allows us to create a soundworld where creaking pines co-exist with a Hammond organ.  We can’t exercise anywhere near enough control in the live environment to pull this off, so we don’t really try.  Our live shows retain the songs, the space and the dynamics of the records, and whilst we do use a laptop for a touch of atmosphere here and there, we rely on the strength of those songs, rather than the sonic trickery of the records.  Do you want to part with £10 of your week’s wage to watch a couple of guys press play and noodle along to a backing track or do you want to see two musicians performing to the best of their abilities, earning your entrance fee by wrenching the sound you’re hearing out of instruments you can see?  If you come to hear the album, save yourself the money, stay at home and play the CD: the sound is infinitely better and, more often than not, so is the beer.

PN: I agree with Tim. We decided that we couldn’t–and indeed shouldn’t–try to replicate the albums live. That would be pointless. We used live performance as an opportunity to explore how far the songs might be stretched or reworked, and to take the opportunity to play together and embrace improvisation, which actually led to us ‘writing’, which was great fun and very useful. I think I’m right in saying that some aspects of LH3 developed out of live performances we did a few years ago.

SCP: Your first three records have been described as a loose trilogy. Is there a particular schema as to how they fit together? It seems that with each album, the songs grow longer, with soundscapes taking greater precedence over more conventional song structures and miniatures. On The Lowland Hundred, there’s an even greater variation of mood–with some atmospheres verging on the eerie and disquieting–and more sudden shifts of dynamics and texture.

TN: The albums chart a drift inland, away from the sea.  We both live in Aberystwyth, so Under Cambrian Sky took its inspiration from the town and its immediate surroundings.  Adit is the start of a move inland, as we got to know the dark lanes and hidden valleys away from the coast.  The most recent album, The Lowland Hundred, is primarily concerned with the old metal mining area, some 7-12 miles inland.  The sound and structure has shifted to reflect the changes in the landscape or, more correctly, our perception of and reaction to the changes in that landscape.  The metal mining valleys are desolate places–they’re part of what is known as The Green Welsh Desert–and the form of The Lowland Hundred proceeds directly from a place in which the ruins of the previous century’s industry are slowly sinking into the hillsides and the handful of hill farmers that remain fight for survival against ever greater threats to their livelihoods.

PN: I think in terms of the ‘loose trilogy’, for some reason in early discussions we decided that we could easily muster enough material for 3 albums based on this location. The term ‘trilogy’ tends to have ‘high art’ connotations in cinema and elsewhere, but that’s OK–we were ambitious! Working on 3 albums also gave us an opportunity to develop our sound and our writing style. Tim and I co-write the material, but I think it’s fair to say we come from different backgrounds as writers, so part of the process of putting together the albums was to find a way to bring our styles together but also to ‘collide’ them in interesting ways. In my view you can hear this progression across the 3 albums. I’m keen on all three for different reasons, but for me personally LH3 sees us properly combining our styles to create something pretty unique across the four long tracks.

SCP: What is next for The Lowland Hundred after the release of your self-titled third album?

TN: As Paul said earlier, we always felt that we could make three albums.  I am extremely proud that we managed to do this in 5 years, while retaining busy, responsible day jobs.  Sadly, the albums have not brought us the wealth and wide renown that other musicians have enjoyed over the years.  I can’t pretend I’m particularly happy about this, but we are not in a position where we have to please a large record company, and we don’t have jet set lifestyles to fund, so we’re free to move on to other projects now that the Lowland Hundred idea has run its natural course.  It is exciting to look for a new sound again and comforting to know that we’ll never have to scrape the barrel to satisfy the terms of a contract.  Paul and I are still making music together but, as I type this, we have no plans for a fourth Lowland Hundred record.  If an idea came along that suited The Lowland Hundred, we’d certainly make a fourth album but, if that idea never materialises, we can be forever proud of three albums filled with beautiful, uncompromising music.

PN: I don’t know if there will be another LH record – perhaps, but only if it feels right and we are properly inspired to do it as the LH. I’m proud of the 3 albums, and I’ve had a great time being involved with the LH project. But we won’t carry on under that name unless it is for the right reasons. Tim and I continue to really enjoy working together, though, and new collaborative work is already in the pipeline.

SCP: Tim and Paul, thank you for your time and for your wonderful music!

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Madison Cawein’s Louisville II

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Spencer and Filson

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been planning to return to Louisville, Kentucky, in order to explore the collections of the Filson Historical Society related to Madison Cawein. This post will be another photoessay–a sequel to my original post on Madison Cawein’s Louisville–documenting what I discovered while I was there this weekend.

Conrad-Caldwell House

The first thing I did in Louisville was to visit the Conrad-Caldwell House (above) on the corner of St. James Court. This was one of the best house tours I’ve ever been on, not only because the home is gorgeously ornate (complete with original furnishings and decorations), but also because our guide, Beth Caldwell, was one of the great-granddaughters of William Caldwell, and thus had many fascinating details, stories, and experiences to share. When I asked Beth if she was familiar with Madison Cawein, she replied in the affirmative and said that the house has among its collections some framed manuscripts / typescripts of Madison’s poetry. For both of us, this suggests that the home’s original owners were at the very least acquainted with the Caweins–the Conrads and Caldwells hosted and entertained guests frequently–during their time at St. James Court. I strongly encourage all visitors to Louisville to tour the Conrad-Caldwell House, and they welcome and deserve any additional donations to their foundation as well.


While at the Conrad-Caldwell House gift shop, I purchased a coffee-table book titled Old Louisville written by David Dominé and featuring photography by Franklin and Esther Schmidt. This profusely illustrated volume portrays the exteriors and interiors of many of Louisville’s most beautiful historic homes in St. James Court, including–and this was the central reason why I bought the book–the Madison Cawein house! The accompanying text fills in some crucial historical details by discussing the home’s other owners, too, including the remarkable fact that this residence has since become home to another Kentucky poet laureate, the writer Sena Jeter Naslund (who has published many works of fiction, including a historical novel titled The Fountain of St. James Court). To the best of my knowledge, the photographs in this book are the only available modern depictions of the inside of Cawein’s former home, so I am reproducing them for viewers below:

Old Louisville book 1

Old Louisville Cawein

Old Louisville Cawein 2

I recommend that anyone interested in Louisville or historic homes seek out and buy Dominé’s book.


Filson marker

The Filson Historical Society (above) possesses three portraits of Madison Cawein and one of Madison’s wife, Gertrude Foster McKelvey. Two of the Cawein portraits have been packed away and placed in storage offsite due to the Filson’s ongoing campus expansion, but the other two are on display on the third floor of the museum, accompanied by a display case of some Cawein artifacts (a letter to Eric Pape, a selection of the manuscript to The Shadow Garden, and photos of his death mask). The portrait of Madison is by J. Bernard Alberts, while the lovely portrait of Gertrude was done by the Caweins’ friend Eric Pape. Here are photos of both:

Cawein portrait and artifacts

Cawein portrait

Gertrude portrait

The Filson staff was also kind enough to provide me with images of the two portraits currently in storage. This is what they look like:

cawein, madison 1993.35.12-watermarked

cawein, madison 1983102-watermarked

The Filson’s special collections includes many cubic feet of documents (subdivided into folders covering a few months at a time) related to Cawein. Here is the description from the online catalogue:

Papers include material which was collected by Otto Arthur Rothert in preparation for his book: The Story of a Poet: Madison Cawein (1921). Cawein’s correspondence discusses his literary work and that of others, especially R. E. Gibson; local, personal, and family news; visits to New York and Washington; meetings with many literary people of the period; publication and reviews of his books; and the sale of his library and letters. Otto A. Rothert’s correspondence, 1915-1928, is chiefly about his biography of Cawein. The collection also includes publisher’s contracts, scrapbooks, photographs, typewritten and handwritten copies of Cawein’s poetry; his translations of works by German poets; and memorabilia. Correspondents include Robert E. Lee Gibson, William Dean Howells, Eric Pape, Jessie B. Rittenhouse, Clinton Scollard, Sara Teasdale and Henry Van Dyke.

It was the mention of Sara Teasdale which most intrigued me, as I am in possession of seven letters written by Cawein to Teasdale (I scanned and transcribed the correspondence and related the full story in my post “The Cawein-Teasdale Letters”), so I decided to focus my study on Cawein’s correspondence from 1910 to 1912, as this time period includes not only the letters Cawein and Teasdale exchanged, but also letters to and from Cawein’s friend Robert E. Lee Gibson, which discuss Teasdale and her work extensively. Upon beginning my research, it quickly became apparent that only a fraction of Cawein’s total correspondence made it into Otto Rothert’s The Story of a Poet, as the number of letters indexed among the Filson’s holdings is overwhelmingly vast; he was apparently as prolific a correspondent as he was a poet.

And now, I am pleased to announce that I was able to read and transcribe the other half of this dialogue–five letters from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein! I have since updated “The Cawein-Teasdale Letters” to include this additional text in its proper chronological sequence. Please visit this post to read the rest of the story!

Posted in literature, Madison Cawein | 2 Comments