MonthJanuary 2019

Black Hats, White Hats, Red Hats, Grey Hats

Simplistic thinking and knee-jerk reaction is a problem these days.  There used to be more a little more nuance in people’s thinking, some acknowledgment of grey areas.  Not anymore, it seems.  We live in a world of black and white.

I was watching Twitter this week when the #CovingtonBoys met Nathan Phillips.  People looked at that now famous image and jumped to all sorts of conclusions about what happened.  Pretty much every conclusion to which anyone jumped was wrong because they jumped from simplistic assumptions.  A week has passed and some people are still looking at the incident through stereotypes.

With this binary thinking, there are clear good guys and clear bad buys.  Heroes in white hats and villains in black hats.  But this isn’t reality; there were no black and white hats at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday–just grey (and red).

The Sainthood and The #Covingtonboys

There were a lot of people who saw the students from Covington High school as saints.  Others see them and want to respond with violence.  The reasons for both reactions are the same.

  1. They are Christian.
  2. They are obviously conservative
  3. They are wearing MAGA hats.

The Sainthood of Nathan Phillips

There’s a whole other batch of people that instantly saw Phillips as the saint.  Their evidence?

  1. He is a U.S. Marine Veteran.
  2. He is an Omaha Tribal elder.
  3. He must be liberal.

TheCovingtonBoys are not Saints

I work with High School students.   They are all capable of much good and we celebrate this when we see it, but they are all capable of many forms of vice or folly.  They are like every other human being on the planet except they are young.  Consequently, both their good and their evil are a little more exuberant.

I am going to disagree with Rienzo, who seems to equate the boys to Christian martyrs facing lions in the Colleseum.

In this group of students, as in most groups, you will see a mix of good, bad and foolish.

They are Christian: Not all Christians are good.  I would go so far as to say, “No Christians are good.”  I wouldn’t be so bold, except the Bible says it.  For it puts Christians in the larger category of being human.  I will concede that there is a lot more hostility directed toward Christians in the media these days.  But, it is not at all helpful for Christians to automatically come to the defense of other Christians, just because they are Christian.  We can expect evil within our midst.  And the best course of action is to deal with it.

It’s equally ridiculous to demonize all Christians.  For one thing, the standard by which Christians are being demonized is a Christian standard.  Secondly, many of the offenses for which Christians are accused are not Christian or at least not exclusively Christian, but human nature expressed through religion and politics.

Every Christian is also human.   That means they will sometimes do good things, but it also guarantees that they will also do evil.  Consequently, we will have to condone or condemn their words and deeds, one at a time.  This is not convenient, but it is moral.

They are conservative:  This doesn’t automatically make them good people, but it doesn’t automatically make them bad people either.   There are good reasons behind social and economic conservatism.  And there are problems with it as well.  Let’s admit this fact, instead of automatically and thoughtlessly condoning or condemning.  Meaningful dialogue is the only way to tease out the truth and the falsehood from these positions.  Meaningful dialogue and name-calling are mutually exclusive.

I don’t understand Christians who are completely comfortable under the conservative label when a good chunk of conservative thought runs contrary to the Bible.  But even so, they are half right, and it might take some responsible dialogue to determine when, where and why.

They are wearing MAGA hats:  This is a hard one.  Some people see this as a token of sainthood.  It certainly isn’t that.  But I try not to think of it as signifying pure, unadulterated evil.  It is inseparable from Donald Trump.  This means that Christians should be very hesitant to wear them for he represents so much that is contrary to Biblical Christianity.

Of course, the students don’t understand that it’s inappropriate to politicize the March for Life with a Trump hat, but where are the adults?   And then I realize that there are probably a lot of adults are wearing them too.

Of course, the students don't understand that it's inappropriate to politicize the March for Life with a Trump hat, but where are the adults? And then I realize that there are probably a lot of adults are wearing them too.Click To Tweet

Nathan Phillips is No Saint Either

Nathan Phillips is no saint, nor is he likely a villain, but this week, binary thinking reduced him to one or the other.  From some perspectives, the evidence for his essential goodness comes from his service in the US military.

He is a Veteran:  Partly out of guilt for our treatment of Vietnam War veterans, and partly because of our worship of Freedom, we’ve recast the idea of a soldier as Defender of Freedom.  We liturgically show appreciation for the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform at civic celebrations and sporting events.  Further, the military is, as always, linked to nationalism.  Consequently, our cultural narratives now celebrate our soldiers.  Veterans are the good guys.  Phillips is a veteran.

Our veneration of Freedom and Nation can lead us to unthinkingly considering all veterans as white-hat heroes, but Nathan Phillips cannot live up to this image.  He is only human.

He is an Omaha Tribal elder:  This has lately become a powerful signifier or goodness.  I recently overheard a woman bashing Christians for being bigots and anti-science.  But it was obvious that she held firmly to the now fashionable reverence for Indigenous culture and spirituality that our federal and provincial governments are promoting.  I support this promotion, by the way.  But with qualifications.

Indigenous Spirituality in a Box

We do well to understand the culture and spirituality of our Indigenous neighbours.  There is much to admire and even emulate. But I worry that we are sanitizing and homogenizing this culture.  Both Indigenous spirituality and Christianity are inconsistent with the modern liberalism that dominates the political and social scene in Canada often for the same reasons.  In the case of Christianity, the differences are emphasized and condemned.  In the case of Indigenous culture, the differences are emphasized and patronized and sanitized and then celebrated.

Both Indigenous spirituality and that of Christianity are inconsistent with the modern liberalism that dominates Canadian politics and education, often for the same reasons. But we condemn the differences in the former and praise them in the latter.Click To Tweet

We are not taking Indigenous culture and spirituality as it is.  We pick and choose the bits that fit our particular political and social narrative.  I fear we are we sentimentalizing.  And so we fail to understand our neighbours but walk away feeling as if we’ve somehow done right.

I wanted to tell the woman who was bashing Christians and venerating Indigenous spirituality, that 70 percent of Indigenous people are Christian.  I suspect this would have been problematic because I don’t think it fits her simplistic narrative.

When I was a kid, the media–movies and television–usually presented Indigenous Americans as aggressive and savage.  We’ve come to repent of this racism, but we are in danger of replacing this misrepresentation with another.  Disney does this when it presents the Sioux as passive victims in Hidalgo.

We often reduce indigenous culture down to its connection to the land or its respect for elders and ancestors or the dialogic approach to problem-solving or as a complement to secular modernism.  These are wonderful aspects of these cultures that we might benefit from, but aren’t we just cherry picking?   Aren’t we really assuming a patronizing openness to these particular ideas and in doing so, disrespecting the whole?

Very rarely do people or things fit neatly into categories of Good and Evil. One of the things we can learn from Indigenous culture is the efficacy of a restorative justice model to teach us that this is so.Click To Tweet

He must be a liberal: There are two problems here.  One is that it’s a simplistic assumption–liberals cannot usually be identified by how they look.  The second problem is to assume that if he’s a liberal, he’s a saint or an embodiment of evil.  There are good reasons behind social and economic liberalism, but it’s not all good.  Meaningful dialogue is the only way to tease out the truth and the falsehood from these positions.

I don’t understand Christians who are completely comfortable under the liberal label when a good chunk of liberal thought runs contrary to the Bible.  But even so, they are half right, and it might take some responsible dialogue to determine when, where and why.

Very rarely do people or things fit neatly into categories of Good and Evil.  One of the things we can learn from Indigenous culture is the efficacy of a restorative justice model to teach us that this is so.  I’m not sure if Phillips is so keen on restorative practices, but we’ll see if he consents to meet with the boys.  America needs some Indigenous Peoples’ wisdom in these curcumstances.  Ironically, these ways are also Christian.  Let’s use, and celebrate both.

If you’d like a nice parable that also bears on this discussion, read “The White Knight” by Eric Nicol.

 

Disney’s Hidalgo: Racism and the America’s Identity Crisis After 9/11

Image by CineMaterial

On September 11, 2001 Americans experienced an event that resulted in a national identity crisis.  Someone had to hate America so much that they’d be willing to kill, and die, to express that hatred.  In the wake of the attacks, Americans had a lot of questions.  Who are these terrorists?  Why do they hate us?  Is Islam peaceful or not?  Was this attack all about religion?  Who are we?  Did we do something to deserve this?  What don’t they understand about us?  What don’t we understand about them?

Deep down, these questions are about identity. We were having an identity crisis.

In the face of this crisis, Disney makes a movie.

To assist in the clarification of the American identity, they release the film Hidalgo (2004).  In it, an America encounters the other with an Arab face as Frank Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, enter an endurance race across the Arabian Desert.   Americans are asking, “Who am I and who are these people called Muslims?”  Hidalgo answers these questions for the viewing audience by clarifying what we are against the Arab other.

In Hidalgo, Disney uses a mythologized version of history to present an innocent and morally upright America which finds strength in the virtues of egalitarianism, self-determinism, and cultural diversity. Click To Tweet 

The Myth-Making of Disney

The popular understanding of the term myth is “a story that isn’t true”—or even an outright lie.  This is not what myth means.  Truth is central to the idea of myth.  Myths  are stories that communicate a vision of a people and their understanding of the world.  Roland Barthe says that in myth a worldview, set of values, or an ethos, are presented as if they were part of the natural order of things.  These things are constructed, they are products of history, but they are powerful nonetheless, for they define a cultural reality—they articulate the truth according to a particular people, those who have adopted the story as their own. 

Myths are not always some ancient story about origins.  Religious figures, authors, politicians, artists, and journalists create and communicate myths as well.  When it comes to the creation of myths, Henry Giroux says “there are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company.”

Disney wants to construct a collective identity from the American past.  It is a particular identity they want to create and they aggressively rewrite and mythologize history to do it.  This is almost always done in opposition to some other.

Disney is not unique in this approach.  We’ve been doing it since we were living in caves.  Richard Kearney says that crises of national identity “seek provisional resolution by displacing the internal conflict of us/them onto an external screen.  Hence, the need to identify outside enemies.”  The other against which identity is constituted is mythic, in the Barthean sense.  It’s presented as if it were part of the natural order of things.

For a time, America’s indigenous people filled the role of the other against which the national identity was constituted.  Because of its dynamic nature, the mythic other is subject to change.  This shift is evidenced in Hidalgo where it is the Arab other that represents alterity and the Sioux is brought to conform with notions of self-identity and sameness.   

Hidalgo: Reimagining Wounded Knee

The inciting incident in the film Hidalgo is the Battle of Wounded Knee after American soldiers misunderstand the Sioux Ghost Dance to be a display of aggression. This event has been altered and mythologized in the film.

The Ghost Dance.  Historian Jeffrey Ostler explores Sioux life as they lived in the economy of the reservation which replaced their dependence on the buffalo herds.   Reservation life, says Ostler, was a “project of control.”  The Sioux experienced a systematic attack on their way of life which reflected a “commitment to cultural genocide” on the part of the American government.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance, which lead to the events at Wounded Knee, would bring about a cataclysmic event that would restore the buffalo and remove the whites from the earth.  Ostler says it “is best understood as an anticolonial movement.” Disney empties the dance of its “oppositional character” and turns the events of that fateful day in American history into a new story.

In the film Hidalgo, the Disney version of the event has been mythologized—emptied then selectively refilled—to show that the events at Wounded Knee were accidental.  The meaning of the Ghost Dance has been distorted in the film.  Rather than an anticolonial movement, it is made passive.  It is a prayer “to their ancestors for help.”  Where Ostler emphasizes the Sioux as active agents, Disney chooses to present them as passive victims.

It serves Disney’s purposes in the film to put partial blame on the U. S. Army for the tragedy.  Therefore, some of the soldiers clearly hold racist attitudes which are expressed in derisive comments and maltreatment of the Sioux.  Yet the massacre is primarily attributed to misunderstanding.  The soldiers are nervous because they mistakenly believe the Ghost Dance to be a prelude to an uprising.  The first shot fired is accidental as an impatient soldier attempts to disarm a deaf boy who did not understand the soldier’s intentions.

By presenting the events at Wounded Knee as accidental, American innocence is maintained and yet, the results are suitably tragic to have a significant impact on the protagonist.  He must experience guilt for his participation in the events at Wounded Knee Creek. 

American Identity: Sioux Heritage

Frank Hopkins is the hero of the film.  In Disney’s mythology, Hopkins is America.  He’s a cowboy.  His strengths and character represent those that we accept as the essential characteristics of America and its people.  Significantly, Frank Hopkins is half Sioux and he is embarrassed by his Indian blood.  As an Army dispatch rider, it is Hopkins who delivers the orders from General Miles which say, “If they choose to fight, subdue them” and so he blames himself for the massacre.  Hopkins rides through the aftermath, the bodies of victims frozen in a grotesque tableau.   

This scene, which again emphasizes the Sioux as passive victims, is juxtaposed with a reenactment of the event in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where they are presented as savage aggressors.  Buffalo Bill narrates the drama and describes how the U. S. soldiers were “outnumbered by warriors, but undaunted in spirit, the brave held their ground.” The juxtaposition of these scenes indicates Disney’s critical attitude toward this blatant revision of history present in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the racist assumptions which underlay it.

Disney is particularly critical of representing of the kind old Chief Eagle Horn as “the last of the wild hostiles, the red pirates of the prairies.”   Hopkins is a participant in the show and his continuous drunkenness indicates the guilt that he feels over his participation in the massacre of the Sioux and his denial of his Sioux heritage.  It is in the resolution of this identity crisis that Hopkins, and the American audience, will ultimately find redemption.

Hopkins’ is called to undertake the quest for his identity by Arab strangers and he reluctantly accepts.  Buffalo Bill has titled Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo as the greatest living endurance race champions of all time.  An Arab sheikh, who hears this label at a show in Europe, objects and insists that Buffalo Bill remove the title from this horse and rider or enter them into a thousand-year-old endurance race called The Ocean of Fire in order to back up this claim.

Dual Heritage, Dual Mentors

Initially, Frank refuses this call to adventure, but Old Chief Eagle Horn in the role of mentor addresses the truth that Hopkins has been avoiding.  He tells him that he can resolve his identity crisis in the Arabian desert.  Hopkins reluctantly accepts the challenge.

On leaving New York harbor, Hopkins stands on the deck of the ship as it slowly passes the Statue of Liberty.  The scene is shot as if to show a conversation with the statue-as-mentor.  We can assume that she tells Hopkins to remember what America stands for.  She knows for it is engraved on her pedestal.  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!  

Hopkins is on his way to “ancient lands” where he will encounter “storied pomp” and Lady Liberty implores him to remember that America does not present masculine “conquering limbs” to the world, but a maternal light of “world-wide welcome.”  Here again, we see the perpetuation of a mythology which presents America in a way that is completely contradicted by the events at Wounded Knee and yet is to be accepted, by the audience, as truth.

Frank Hopkins: Middle-Class Family Values

In his encounters with the other, Frank Hopkins, the embodiment of the American identity, is presented as morally upright which means, for Disney, that he adheres to a code of “family values.”

Because Disney’s world is “middle class in its portrayal of family values,” cheating and adultery are activities performed by the evil, and fair-play and chastity are practiced by the good.  Accordingly, Frank Hopkins is good and most of the Arabs in the film are evil.

Where Hopkins is inclined to help fellow riders who have fallen, the Prince, who rides the favored Al-Hattal, pays British soldiers to prevent Hopkins access to the well they guard.  The Prince’s actions, as well as those of several other Arabs who cheat, steal and betray, reinforce the idea that the Arab is capable “of cleverly devious intrigues, [and is] essentially sadistic, treacherous, low.” When Lady Davenport, a member of the British aristocracy and owner of a horse in the race, perceives that Hidalgo is a threat to win, she offers Hopkins sexual favors and a great deal of money for his withdrawal from the race.  She is later found to be conspiring with the story’s villain, Sheikh’s bastard nephew, to ensure the victory of her horse.  Frank’s refusal to cheat or throw the race for either money or sex shows a moral strength that is superior to that of both the Arabs and the British.

Although the moral code to which Hopkins adheres is based on the Judeo-Christian values, the writers have chosen that he is to be known as “The Cowboy” and the adulterous and dishonest Lady Davenport is given the title “The Christian Lady.”  This suggests more than just a secularization of the moral code, but also, in the reversal of meaning of the historical signifiers, a not so subtle hostility to Christianity. Thus, the American national identity is constituted against that of the other—Arab, British and Christian—and has been found to be morally superior.

American Values: Human Equality

Another piece of the American identity that the movie reinforces is the idea that we stand for human equality.  On disembarking in Aden, Hopkins’ immediately encounters a harsh, hierarchically structured society.  Just outside the port city, the caravan passes a group of black men chained together at the ankles.  Frank makes eye contact with a little boy walking in his chains of unusual size.  One of the Arabs says to Hopkins, in a mocking tone, “Have you never seen a slave market, Mr. Frank?”  Then he laughs.

That slavery in America was abolished only a few decades previous, and that Hopkins had certainly seen the inhuman treatment of the Sioux Indians is forgotten.  Of these facts, the audience is expected to have, what historian Mike Wallace calls, “selective amnesia.”  In the Disney mythologized history, Frank’s feelings at the sight of the boy in chains are the same as those of the audience—revulsion—because this could never happen in America.  History has been “sanitized” for the sake of this new mythology.  Frank eventually buys the boy and takes off his chains, and although he runs off at first, he returns to help Frank of his own volition.   

When he arrives at the Bedouin camp, Hopkins discovers another helper has been assigned to him, a goatherder who has been accused of stealing milk.  For this minor crime, he was given the choice to either “serve the infidel” or lose his left hand. Like the slave boy, the goatherder decides to join with the infidel.

The goatherder consistently attempts to establish his superiority over the boy, which he is entitled to according to the structure of Arab society. On these occasions, Hopkins asserts his egalitarian values and insists on the equality of the two.  Thus, he embodies the inscription communicated to him by Lady Liberty as he began his quest.

However, in Hopkins’ treatment of his two assistants lies an assumption of white superiority which is assumed even in the midst of his insistence that black and Arab are equal.  The audience accepts as natural the Orientalist sentiment articulated by Edward Said in Orientalism where he says that the white man “belonged to, and could draw upon the empirical and spiritual reserves of, a long tradition of executive responsibility toward the colored races.”

It is not only blacks and petty criminals who are treated poorly in Arab culture.  It is clear that women are degraded as well when the Sheik declares that “On cold nights, my wives sleep in the stable tents so that Al-Hattal, his champion horse, is comfortable and appeased.”  The plight of women in Arab society is primarily explored through the Sheik’s daughter, Jazira.  If the Prince, riding the Sheikh’s own Al-Hattal, wins the race, she will be added to the Prince’s harem as his fifth wife.  In this position, she will be no better than a slave.  For this reason, she secretly assists Hopkins and Hidalgo.  Thus, the team of misfits now also takes up the cause of women.

However, because the Sheikh loves his daughter, he secretly allows her to ride even though it is forbidden for her to do so.  The implication is that traditional Arab ways are contrary to expressions of paternal love.  Because the Sheikh is conflicted between his love for his daughter and the Bedouin tradition, he is endeared to the American audience.  This is an example of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls historicism, the idea that history is a developmental process and all cultures are evolving to the same enlightened end, but they do so at different rates. The Sheik’s conflict between tradition and love, suggests he is a little further along than the rest of Arab society, and American society with its egalitarian values is much more advanced than the Arab society.  The historical fact that women suffrage would not be won in the United States for another thirty years is ignored.   

American Values: Self-Determinism

Another aspect of American identity that is emphasized in the film Hidalgo is self-determinism.  In the film, fatalism dominates the Arab view of the world and therefore the race.  There is no doubt in any of the Arabs’ minds that Hopkins will perish in the race, for Allah would not allow an infidel to succeed.  That Hidalgo will eventually win the race casts dispersion on the idea that such a thing is ordained by God.

The conflict between Hopkin’s self-determinism and Arab determinism is before us continually.  Although Hopkins is inclined to help another rider whose horse was killed, he was forbidden to do so because it is Allah’s will that the horse fell. The goatherder explains to Frank, “There are those who are chosen to be winners and those chosen to be losers. Allah chooses thus, and it is written.”  At the beginning of the race, a rider, named Sakr, says that he thought an infidel’s presence in the race is sacrilege, but, he says, “I trust in Allah that He’ll roast some of us like sheep on a spit before the sun sets today. You shall be among the first.”  Later, when he encounters Sakr near death in quicksand, Frank refuses to allow him to die.  Although Sakr protests that it is Allah’s will that he perish, Frank argues “What about your will?  What about your horse’s will?  Seems to me that’s what will get you across a finish line.  Only then is it written.”  Frank pulls him free against his objections, but Sakr learns a valuable lesson.  Later, he sacrifices his own life to save Frank.

In the argument between American self-determinism and Arab fatalism, the former is clearly presented as superior as is evidenced by Sakr’s complete conversion to its precepts.  Another example from the film occurs when Jazira asks Frank, “How did you tame [Hidalgo]?”  To which he answers, “I didn’t.”  In America, not even a horse is denied the freedom to write his own destiny.

Hopkins’ Struggle for Identity

A dominant theme of the film challenges the British and Arab belief in the idea of racial superiority.  Hidalgo is a Mustang, a breed which Lady Davenport correctly explains as having “mixed blood of Spanish origin.”  The contest is presented as a competition between the “impure animal” that is Hidalgo and the “purest equine bloodline in the world.”  At the top of this list is Al-Hattal—“equine perfection.”  Frank is warned that should Hidalgo attempt “to cover an Arab mare, it would be viewed as a most inviolable blemish.  The foal would need to be destroyed before touching the ground.  As would the offending sire.”  Frank Hopkins’ mother was a Sioux Indian and so he too is of mixed blood.  The antagonists in the story are both Arab and British, each who believe in the importance of pure bloodlines, not only in their horses but in themselves.   

It is in the contest between the pure and mixed bloods that Frank addresses his own identity.  His meeting with Chief Eagle Horn after he is challenged by the Arabs takes place in a dark compartment in the train symbolizing the suppression of Hopkins’ Sioux ancestry.  Chief Eagle Horn tells him that he is called far rider not because of his many long distance races, but because he “rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.”  The chief suggests that Frank is lost until he accepts his Sioux ancestry because right now he is “neither white man nor Indian.”  With this wisdom, the old chief imparts the gift of a necklace on which hangs the circular Sioux symbol first seen among the bodies at Wounded Knee.  Later, the goatherder, in ignorance, creates a flag using the Sioux symbol from the necklace.  Hopkins’ identity crisis is resolved in the climax of the story.

Hidalgo has been injured in the final battle against the Sheik’s bastard nephew and the race has taken its toll on both horse and rider.  It is clear to Frank that he must euthanize Hidalgo.  In his sorrow and his exhaustion, he begins to sing the song of the Ghost Dance.  As he sings, he hallucinates and he sees his Sioux ancestors dancing around him.  At this moment the Prince rides up and ridicules Hopkins for ever thinking that he had a chance against him.  The Prince declares, “I am born of a great tribe—the people of the horse.”  At that moment Frank embraces his Sioux heritage with pride and says, “So am I.”  With this internal victory over himself, Frank can finish the race.  To symbolize his complete acceptance of his Sioux blood, he rides toward the finish line without a saddle or cowboy hat.  As they race at full speed to the finish line, the Prince uses a whip to drive on Al-Hattal, but Frank only whispers “Let ‘er buck.” Under the banner of the Sioux symbol, Frank and Hidalgo win the race.

Ironically, in the resolution of Frank’s identity crisis, and in the resolution of the American national identity of which he is representative, the identifiers of self-determinism and egalitarianism have been undermined.  Thus far the film has consistently asserted that it is neither God’s will nor the blood in one’s veins that determines destiny or worth.  Yet at the climax of the story, we are presented with the idea that blood does, in fact, matter.  It is the blood of America’s Sioux that is superior to Arab blood and which determines Frank’s destiny.  This determinism and blood superiority is inconsistent with the other major themes of the story.  However, because it conforms to the dominant theme of the film—the superiority of Western culture over that of the East—the inconsistency is easily ignored.

Crisis Resolved:  American Superiority Maintained

All the themes in the film, which are grounded in comparisons between American and Arab cultures, fall under the overarching theme of American superiority.  In each comparison—Cowboy/Arab morality, egalitarian/hierarchical society, self-determinism/fatalism, and American diversity/Arab purity—the controlling theme of the film, and therefore the fundamental aspect of America’s identity, is its superiority over the Arab.

What Edward Said described as the cultural hegemony of Europe is true of America.  The idea of America is a collective notion identifying “us” Americans against all “those” non-Americans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in American culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside America: the idea of American identity as a superior one in comparison with all non-American peoples and cultures.  Giroux says that Disney’s world is largely “colonial in its production of racial differences” and this is apparent in the film Hidalgo.  We need look no further than the fundamental story: an American defeats one hundred Arabs riding purebred Arabian horses.

At the conclusion of the race, the Arabs are shown to have learned some valuable lessons from the cowboy and tacitly admit American superiority.  When they first meet, Hopkins was refused a handshake from the Sheik because to touch an infidel would negate his powers to tell the future. In the end, the Sheik offers a handshake admitting that he could never tell the future in the first place.  This is an admission of human equality and therefore an agreement with the egalitarianism America espouses.  Sakr, formerly so committed to Allah’s will, writes his own destiny and willingly give his life for Hopkins.  His conversion to American self-determinism is so complete he is willing to die for it.  At the race’s conclusion, the Prince admits that purity of blood is not the only measure of a horse, and by implication of a man, when he says, “It is a magnificent horse.”  Not only did Hopkins learn of the superiority of his Sioux blood and culture, but the Arabs also learned about the inferiority of theirs.

As in other Disney films, the racism in Hidalgo “is defined by both the presence of racist representations and the absence of complex representations of . . .  people of colour.”  The Arabs are portrayed as arrogant, dishonest, disloyal, racist and incredibly bad shots with a rifle.  Yet, Disney presents these, what Said calls Orientalist, ideas as “morally neutral and objectively valid.”

But not only has the Arab been inaccurately presented.  The historical “cowboy and indian” are nowhere to be seen in the film.  Disney has taken a mythologized notion of the adventurous cowboy and the most noble, mythic qualities of the American Indian and has put them into Hopkins to be representative of America.  The film clearly communicates regret at the killing of the Sioux at the beginning of the story, but they offer no such sentiments for the killing of Arabs.  This contradiction is apparently acceptable because of the myths which have been constructed about these groups within the film, as well as in popular culture.  The Sioux have been cast as the innocent victim; the Arab as the brutal victimizer.  The filmmakers are critical of the mythologized history presented at the Wild West show, yet feel no compulsion to direct their critical eye at their mythological presentment of Arab culture.

Even though they claim the film is based on a true story, it is clear that Disney’s priority when telling the story of Hidalgo is not historical veracity but the construction of a national identity.  In fact, Frank T. Hopkins’ race across the Ocean of Fire may have been completely fabricated.  Fellows Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, founders of the Long Riders Guild, claim that the that the legend of Hidalgo is “the biggest Wild West hoax in American history.”  Still, the film’s screenwriter, John Fusco, insists that his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources.  The extent to which Disney has diverged from historical truth in the Hopkins’ story is debatable, but that they have altered historical truth about America’s dealings with its indigenous people is not in question.

Disney does not consider this abuse of the past—“they freely and disarmingly admit to its falsification, pointing out that this is, after all, just entertainment.”  Of the Hidalgo debate, Nina Heyn, Disney’s Executive Director of International Publicity said

No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It’s like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don’t think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality.

Three years after 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released. In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks. Click To Tweet

Three years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released.  In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks.  In the film, the American audience comes face to face with the Arab other.

To this end, Disney offers a comparison between America and the Arab other—American versus Arab morality, egalitarian versus hierarchically structured society, self-determinism versus fatalism, and racial purity versus cultural diversity.  In every case the Arab is found to be inferior, thus the monster has been defanged.

Because its purpose is to create a collective identity against the other, Disney perpetuates the Orientalist vision of “difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” (Said).  In doing so it fails to use history as a site of a cross-cultural, cross-categorical conversation between America and other peoples.  When history is a means to understand the other, rather than as a means to identify oneself against the other, we develop what Richard Kearney calls “narrative sympathy” which enables “us to see the world from the other’s point of view.”  It is unfortunate that with its incredible power to influence culture, Disney has chosen to close to avoid meaningful conversation in favor of a racist monologue.


 

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (2)

Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay

Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t really so much a picture of hell, as it is a picture of pagan worship.

But, in a sense, the latter is a picture of the former.  The interactions between the contestants in Hell’s Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.

The interactions between the contestants in Hell's Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.Click To Tweet

Hell’s Kitchen: The Community

The god shapes the community of worship.  Ramsey lays out how the community is to function on Hell’s Kitchen.  He’s very sparing with his blessings and establishes a competition–for his favour.  In this competition, there will be one winner.  All the others, eventual losers.

Each contestant is pitted against the others.  “Friendships” are largely opportunistic.  If another contestant goes out today, then I stay.  If someone wins, I lose.

In a sporting context, there are always winners and losers.  In Hell’s Kitchen, the competition doesn’t stop after the contest is won and lost.  It moves into the dorms and the jacuzzi.   Ramsey promotes it–“Go back to the dorms and determine which people you want to put forward for elimination.”  And we get to watch this agonizing process.  Like I said, it’s hellish.

C. S. Lewis writes about the ethos of hell in The Screwtape Letters.   In this excerpt, an experienced devil, Screwtape, explains it a novice tempter, his nephew:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

In this sense, Hell’s Kitchen is hellish.

There are many contexts in which we find ourselves in hellish circumstances.  It’s when we encounter someone who believes everyone is against them and they will use us, and anyone else for their own gain.  They use people for financial gain, to feed their ego, for sexual pleasure, or because the need to be in control. They will take, and never give, unless there is something in it for them.

But this doesn’t describe all of our experience with others.

Christianity and Competition

In our daily lives, many of us experience a little heaven now and then

The whole philosophy of Heaven is, logically, opposite as that of Hell.

This philosophy rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is part of other things, and, specially, that oneself is another self.  My good is your good and your good is mine.  What one gains the other also gains.

We often experience the philosophy of heaven in the best moments of our lives.

When we give of ourselves to our spouse, their gain is also our gain.  When we sacrifice for the sake of our children; what we give up is eclipsed by what we receive from their joy or flourishing.  We give time to colleagues, students, even strangers and receive many times the blessing back, sometimes just in the form of a smile.  The math doesn’t work, and this is incomprehensible to the devils like Screwtape and those humans who buy into his logic don’t.  They just can’t imagine how it’s possible to can give and get back more back.  Happily, most people get it–the math of heaven.

I think Gordon Ramsey gets it.  We catch glimpses of it in all of his shows.  I don’t think his moments of sacrificial kindness are simply a means to more viewership.  Yes, he does it for ratings, but perhaps deep down he does it because heaven feels better than hell.

One such moment was in episode six of this season’s Rookies versus Veterans edition.   Chris decided to step out of the competition.  He was on the verge of a breakdown.  The show is stressful enough, but he had also been involved in a serious accident nine months before coming to the show.   Sous Chef Christina and Ramsay caught wind of Chris’ plight.  Their response was sympathy and by urged Chris to seek professional help.  It’s a small thing, with hardly any sacrifice, but for a moment I believe that Ramsey was acting almost completely in Chris’ best interest.

On Hell’s Kitchen we see quite a bit more hell than heaven.  That’s why I stopped watching it.  But I never miss an episode of Master Chef.

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (1)

patticake1601 / Pixabay

I used to watch Hell’s Kitchen.  I like Gordon Ramsey, despite the arrogance.  He knows what he’s doing in the kitchen and his food is amazing.  I’ve eaten it.  And he knows how to run a restaurant.  Always a little harsh, he’s nearly altruistic in Kitchen Nightmares and the new Hell on Wheels; he’s almost nurturing in Master Chef.  But I’ve stopped watching Hell’s Kitchen because it’s way too hellish.  Ramsey is abusive and the contestants are mostly a bunch of cocky malcontents with personality disorders. To have to go out to dinner with these people would be hell enough. To have to live and run a dinner service with them, I don’t have to imagine–this is the subject of the show.

Although Ramsey is not all that religious, he’s given his show a name that is foundationally Christian.  Is the kitchen in the show anything like the scullery where the reprobate will eternally toil in “adamantine chains and penal fire”?

The simple answer is, of course, no.  And Ramsey is not really anything like a devil.

All images in the show’s opening credits suggest Gordon Ramsey is the boss of hell.  Horns, pointy tail, glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position similar to that of a pagan god than the Christian Satan.

The opening credits of Hell's Kitchen show Gordon Ramsey with horns, pointy tail, and glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position more like that of a pagan god than a devil. Click To Tweet

Pagan Worship

Life was hard in the ancient world.  Floods and drought threatened vital food supplies as did marauders who were forever running off with the harvest.  In this world of uncertainty, vulnerable humanity sought the aide of the gods to ensure fertility and security.  Survival, they believed, depended on their ability to humour and mollify these gods.

The gods themselves were very unpredictable. The slightest thing could set them off.  The demanded attention, the right kind of attention.  They were jealous when they felt others received more attention.  When resentful, they lashed out against the people.

How do you manage gods like these?  Invariably, people came to the conclusion that the gods needed to be manipulated.  In almost all religions the gods need to be appeased.  Worship was, and in many cases still is, appeasement.  If you can please the gods, blessings will follow.  Failure to do so means disaster.  The rain ceased to fall, and the land failed to bear fruit and the women were barren.

It is no accident that in places where there were no natural barriers and the climate was most unpredictable, the sacrifices demanded by the gods were far more costly than in places with more reliable food supply and less threat from enemies.  The bad things were thought to be an indication of the gods’ displeasure with the sacrifice, so the ante had to be increased.  This is why some cultures ended up sacrificing their children, so high was the gods’ price for blessing.

Appeasing Gordon Ramsey

In Hell’s Kitchen, worshipers must obey and appease a powerful and aggressive diety in order to earn favour and blessings.  Through appeasement and performance, contestants attempt to earn, the salvation for which they hope: survival into the next episode and ultimately, a dream job in the restaurant business.

In Hell’s Kitchen, appeasement is both individual and collective.  The most competent team is rewarded with a cool culinary field-trip; the losers are given a hellish chore, and one member of the losing team will be sent away.

There are three means by which Ramsey is appeased.

Appeasement in Hell’s Kitchen means getting good food out fast.  “Two scallop”  means two, perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, perfectly presented scallops at the pass when Ramsey wants it.  If your number, cook, seasoning, presentation, and timing are perfect, or nearly so, you will earn a blessing–a “nicely done” or “the scallops are perfect.”

Woe to the chef who fails in one or more aspects of this complex ritual.  Many cooks will be berated for failure to appease, but one will be banished.  Banishment from the presence of the god, banishment from the community and the hope for salvation will be dashed.

There are other means of appeasement in  Hell’s Kitchen.  As you stand before Gordon Ramsey facing eliminations as one of three, he asks you, “Why do you think you should stay in Hell’s Kitchen?”  He can be appeased, it seems, if a would be Executive Chef can convince him of her passion.  Passion is what one must bring to the altar.

The third way to appease the pagan god, and Gordon Ramsey, or more accurately avoid his curse, is to submit.   Muttering under your breath, talking back, or directly defying Ramsey will bring down his wrath.  No ego but Ramsey’s is permitted in Hell’s Kitchen.

Christian Worship: Favour First

Christian worship is different from pagan worship because the Christian God is different.

God is love and he is also holy.

He loves us.  He wants to be with us.  This is mostly for our sake, not his.  It’s good for us to be with him; he desires our good; therefore, he wants to be with us.  The problem is, we can’t be with him–we are not holy.  Unholy things can’t be in his presence–they couldn’t survive.

As in pagan worship, Biblical worship involves sacrifices and offerings to God, but not to appease him, but to purify ourselves.  Purification comes from the blood of sacrifice.  The purification from the blood of animals was very limited.  There were still many barriers between the Holy God and his people.  But they laid the groundwork and created a pattern through which his people could understand his holiness and their need for his grace.

In pagan worship, the people acted first so that the gods would give favour.  In Old Testament worship, God’s acts first–in giving favour.   It need not be earned, we have it already.

Christian Worship: Gratitude, not Appeasement

In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1–16) we see two offerings.  Able’s offering was acceptable to God.  There was something about Cain’s offering that wasn’t acceptable.  It is not certain, why God rejected Cain’s offering, but I think there is a good possibility that Cain’s offering was meant as appeasement–a bribe for divine favour.  He sacrificed in a manner consistent with the pagan nations.  Abel’s offering, then, was a gift of gratitude.  An appropriate attitude toward the God that he knew.

The sacrifice of animals on the Old Testament was inadequate.  It was always temporary and symbolic.  To purify all of humanity and all of creation, a much bigger sacrifice must be made.  Bigger and completely perfect.  The only one who meets these requirements is God himself.  He would have to bring the sacrifice; he would have to be the sacrifice.

Jesus is God and his death on the cross was the once and for all sacrifice that purifies all of creation, including humanity for all eternally.  We can only be in God’s presence if we are clothed in the blood of Christ.  We are not thus attired unless we accept the sacrifice.  This is all that is required of us, but it makes all the difference.  If we accept Christ’s sacrifice, we can be in God’s presence because we are covered in the blood of Christ.  He took on our sin received the effects of sin, we take on is purity and receive the effects of his purity.

Christian worship can’t be about appeasement, because we had his favour before the sacrifice.  We couldn’t bring any offering that would have purified us, so God made the only sacrifice that could save us.

1 John 4: 8-10 is the summary.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

We don’t get what we deserve; we receive salvation at his expense.  What can we do now, but be grateful?  This is central to Christian worship.  And Christian worship isn’t limited to church services.  Christian worship is a life lived out of gratitude for what God has done.

My favourite part of all of Gordon Ramsey shows is when he comes down from his throne and offers grace to one of the lesser folk.  He takes on the price for someone else’s benefit.  These moments are always poignant, but even more so on Hell’s Kitchen where we are usually experiencing Ramsey’s continuous wrath.  Viewers like these gracious moments.  I think something resonates in us when we see moments of grace.  Perhaps because this is what our hearts were made for.

The Meaning of Life: Consumption

 

A manufactured object obviously has a purpose that was built into it by its designers, but a lot of people do not believe this is true for human beings.

comment on TED in response to the question, “Does humanity have a purpose?” says, “Humanity has no unified purpose and I suggest that history shows us that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous (religion, eugenics…).”

It is true that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when the single purpose is one for which we were not designed.  If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder, the results can be disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose.

Giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when it's one for which we weren't designed. If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder--disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose. Click To Tweet

There is a danger in living for the wrong purpose, but perhaps it is just as dangerous to avoid purpose if we were actually created for one.

Our Default Purpose–Consumption

In our culture, one of the purposes we have collectively chosen for ourselves (or perhaps it has been subtly imposed upon us) is that of consumer–we buy things, lots of things.  The things we buy are designed to wear out after a time, or they are improved upon, so we throw out the old thing and buy another thing.  We are manipulated to be ever discontent and then offered things that will make us content.  It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s OK because contentment would be bad for the economy.

Were we made to consume?  Is this the purpose for which we were designed?

Zombies and Consumption

This question is a weak spot in the fence of our cultural identity and the hands of the undead are pawing at it.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume.  It ever eats, but is never satisfied.  It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.

Perhaps humans were not made for religion, but the zombie tells us that we weren’t made for consumption either.

If we were made for another purpose, the cure for the zombie is to orient its whole life toward that purpose.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume. It ever eats, but is never satisfied. It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.Click To Tweet

Designed for Relationship

I suggest that humanity is designed for relationship.

Not just any relationship, but the kind that is more interested in the flourishing of the other than the flourishing of the self.  Most people have caught at least a glimpse of what this relationship can be like.  Some lovers are like this–they are so interested in the happiness of the other one that they forget themselves.  Parents constantly set the needs of their children higher than their own.

The paradox in these sorts of relationships is the more you give, the more you get back–and not usually from the kids or even your lover.  It comes from someplace else and it’s so fulfilling.  It’s like you are a swivel chair being used as a swivel chair.

Sadly, not everyone has experienced this sort of relationship.

Zombies haven’t.  They are too busy eating other people.

In a consumer culture, other people can easily be reduced to something we can to use–in essence, something to consume–it makes us zombies.  Some people treat their employees this way.  Some men treat women this way, and women men.  Some kings, their subjects and some mothers, their children.

The good news is that there is a cure for zombies.

Here’s more analysis of the meaning of zombies.

Can I Please Have an Extension?

kang_hojun / Pixabay

This is a post for my students and their parents.  I’ve received emails from frustrated parents because I was hesitant to grant a request for an extension on a writing assignment.  Here I explain my refusal, not just to justify myself, but also to provide information so that parents and students can proactively avoid the circumstances that cause the frustration in the first place.

I have explained my two-draft system for teaching students how to write academic papers.  It’s a great system because student writing improves significantly, but it comes at a cost.  There is so much marking to do, and it’s the hardest kind of marking.

When I started this two-draft system, my marking was inefficient.  Today a class set of papers takes me 16 hours, a few years ago is was closer to 24.  I was marking for two weeks solid, as the papers trickled in.

Here's the thing about marking--if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours. If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3.Click To Tweet

I didn’t want to abandon the whole system, student writing was improving, but I needed to streamline the process and get the marking under control.  Now, I’ve done it.  Not only is my marking down to 16 hours for a set of papers, but I am seeing even better writing from students as a result of these changes.

The changes place some more responsibility on students.

Managing the Marking

Right now I have nearly 60 English 12 students, and I’m marking most papers twice.

In order to make the marking more manageable, I have established a due date/time for the first draft.  This date is firm.  If the paper comes in by this time, I mark it.  If it does not, I won’t even see it. I stop when I finish the last one.

The papers are always due on Saturday at 8 am.  Remember, there is no requirement to turn in the first draft, but if you want the feedback there is one condition–you have to turn it in for me to mark it.  And I mark them on Saturday.

It takes 10-12 minutes to mark each paper. I usually get around 45-50 first draft papers.

This adds up to about 10 hours of marking.  In order to get the papers back to students as fast as possible, I mark them all that day.  I mark until I have no more papers.  Then I stop.  If a paper comes in after this, I will not see it.

I have a due date/time for the second and final copy of the paper.  This time is also firm.  If a first draft paper has been submitted, this second draft is optional.  If a student wants me to mark their re-write, they need to turn it in, on time of course.  If I don’t get a paper, I assume the student has chosen to take the mark they earned on the first draft.

Sharing the Cost

Student writing has improved so much, that I regularly have students return to thank me for preparing them so well for university writing.  Their success is due in part to this two draft system.  But this success comes at a cost. The cost is shared by the students and myself.  The price I pay is giving up some Saturdays to provide thorough, valuable and immediate feedback on first drafts and then marking them all again.  The student’s cost is they must turn in their best work by the time I get to the last paper.

All this isn’t as harsh as it sounds.  High school papers are a long time in development.  We work on them for 3 to 4 weeks.  We’ve had discussions and done activities that help the student to understand the task.  I do all I can to get students started with a clear sense of direction.  Paper writing can start more than 2 weeks before the due date.  There is time enough to write the paper.

Not all students start early enough.  They are busy with other things, many of them worthwhile.  In the week before the paper is due, those who haven’t started predictably begin to experience stress.  This gets them going.  Some students are involved in a lot of things but haven’t yet developed a system by which they can be busy and get their school work finished.

Some of these will ask for an extension.

Extensions

I will, of course, give an extension for significant illness or an unanticipated family crisis–these are unplanned an unavoidable.  I will also give students more time if they started their paper early and have been diligently working for weeks and still need more time.  I usually have a pretty good idea as to who these students are.

I am very reluctant to give extensions because of a lack of time management.  I totally understand why they want one.  I understand why the parents are frustrated with me for not giving one.  I get it.  In last week before the due date, the student has 3 shifts at Tim Horton’s, the hay needs to be taken off before the rain, grandpa’s 75th birthday party, volleyball practices, piano lessons, and a Taylor Swift concert.  And they have hardly started their paper.  There are tears and frustration–even yelling.  All could be well if only Mr. De Jong would give an extension.

This is when I get the email.

By making the paper a little bit of a priority, and starting early, the busiest student can get a decent draft of a paper completed in two weeks.  Students take between 4 and 12 hours to write a large paper.  They know how long it takes them.  If they are busy and slow, they must start earlier, and take every 30 minutes where they can get it.  They have to say “No” to Starbuck’s and Hockey Night in Canada for two weeks.  This is the price they must pay if they want feedback.

Remember, there is an extension built into my system–there is no obligation to turn in the first draft–it’s completely optional.  They don’t even have to inform me.  They can decide to take an automatic 5-day extension.

All Decisions Come at a Price

Who should pay the price for a student’s involvement in the school play or the missions trip?  Or the hockey game or rock concert?  Almost all students accept the fact that they ought to pay the bulk of the costs for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.  Deciding to go on a leadership trip to our nation’s capital is good, but it will cost you.  Many students pay this cost by organizing their schedule in such a way so as to submit the first draft before they leave–that’s five days early.

Students ought to pay for their decisions--for the good ones as well as the bad. All decisions demand a price. It's a fact of life.Click To Tweet

I usually deny a student’s request for an extension because they are, in effect, asking me to negate the natural consequences of the decisions they made. They would like to have their cake and eat it too.  Someone must pay the price, but they’d rather it would not be them.

What lessons will they learn by a refusal of an extension?  What lessons will they learn by a granting of same?

“It’s only one paper.”

One exception will quickly turn into 10 and I’d be back where I stared–the additional 8 hours and marking spread out over two weeks.  I’d go back to students turning in one paper and cut down on the comments.  I’d be doing things just like my high school teachers.  And most students wouldn’t become better writers.

“What about grace.”

I worry about the lessons that are learned if I give an extension.  I think the most gracious thing to do, long term, is to deny the extension.  The kids that are busy need to learn how to manage busy-ness–their life won’t get less busy when they get to post-secondary or move into their career.  I’d also hate to think what a child learns when they don’t pay the price for their decisions.

“It’s not fair.”

59 other students are paying the price of their own choices.  Is it fair that one does not?

 

An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

stevepb / Pixabay

When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers–a B.  I was happy with that.  I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many section of this course. Apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students;  I would have to take a different approach to teaching student how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing to eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence if they are used for punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Also because I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class. (I’ve written on these issues here.)

The major feature of my system for teaching students how to improve their academic writing is to have them submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.  I use this system for summative assessment–each written piece of student writing  in a series from an analysis paragraph, to an essay, to a larger term paper.

Students can turn a first draft of their paper.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback on this paper.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the paragraphs I marked.  This helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are so much better than the first drafts.  So students’ marks are higher.  Although they like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month ago and apply them to a new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help you with understanding the material that you will be writing your paper on.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are being discussed, explored and references at these times.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  A minimum of two weeks before the due date.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have a lot more work to do from Saturday to Thursday as you write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

I was defeated by Ulysses

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

I was defeated by Ulysses.

Well, that’s not so bad, so was the entire city of Troy, 200 suitors, and the Cyclops Polyphemos.

I mean the book. The one by James Joyce.  I quit half-way. I’m supposed to be smart. I teach literature.  I did War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Don Quixote in the same year.  I read Infinite Jest in three months, for crying out loud!  (Read this; it is really funny.)

There was that time when I threw Wuthering Heights across the room. But that was when I was young, and I later read that one no problem.  Not so with Ulysses.  I know when I have been beaten.

Maybe this is just round one.  I can go back to it later, to keep up my record.

I don’t want to. Not even a little bit.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I took a British Literature class.  We read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I enjoyed parts of this book, particularly the description of hell in Father Arnall’s sermon.  But there was something inside me that said this book was too much of something.

Here is an actual dialogue I had with a fellow student in this class after reading this book:

Professor: Is A Portrait a novel?

Me: No, a masterpiece but not a novel.

Brown-noser: Of course it’s a novel.

Me: No, it’s just Joyce showing all the neato things you can do to a novel.  Novels are meant to be read, this book is not.  It’s meant to be studied.

Brown-noser: Just because it’s not like a typical novel . . . if a painter uses a lot of new techniques we still call it a painting.

Me: If a painter brushes his initials onto a rock with water-soluble paint and then throws it off a cliff into the ocean before anyone sees it, do we still call it a painting?

The “too much of something’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was many times too much in Ulysses.

Ulysses: Life is too Short

I agree with Ron Rosenbaum in “Is Ulysses Overrated?

Actually, Rosenbaum doesn’t even agree with Rosenbaum, as much as I do.

I was fascinated by the fact that the plot of this book covers just a single day.  It’s witty.  Each chapter is written in a different style. For some people, all the allusions get in the way, but I thought they added to the meager appeal of the book.

I think that my main problem is that the book overturns almost every traditional way of telling a story.  Is this book, change for the sake of change?  One might argue that this is no worse a sin than writing in traditional modes for the sake of writing in traditional modes.  And one would be right.  Except one wouldn’t be holding Ulysses as one said it.

Traditional modes or writing need to be rejuvenated with new approaches, absolutely.  But in Ulysses, Joyce has evolved the novel brilliantly, but this has not ended up with a book I want to read.

It’s a masterpiece.  By all means, study it, but don’t bother reading it, for there is no joy there.

Or perhaps all this is simply justification and defensiveness arising from my humiliation–perhaps.  If it ends up to be this, I will be posting a refutation and celebration of having finished Ulysses and proclaiming it’s brilliance.

Ulysses is a masterpiece. By all means, study it, but don't bother reading it, for there is no joy there. Click To Tweet

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