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My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

October 30-31, 2021: October 2021 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

October 4: AmericanFires: The Armory Fire: A series inspired by the Chicago fire’s 150th anniversary kicks off with a Civil War tragedy that sheds light on one of our more complex histories.

October 5: AmericanFires: The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: The series continues with two distinct, equally inspiring communal responses to one of our most destructive disasters.

October 6: AmericanFires: The Triangle Fire: Two legacies of and one evolving question about a horrific industrial disaster, as the series rages on.

October 7: AmericanFires: The Hindenburg: A justifiably famous context for the airship disaster, and a more ambiguous but equally compelling question.

October 8: AmericanFires: The Great Chicago Fire: The series concludes with a link to my Saturday Evening Post column on lessons from the fire’s 150th!

October 9-10: AmericanFires: Wildfires and Climate Change: A special weekend post on the longstanding history of defining environmental disasters, and why that’s not sufficient to understand our current crisis.

October 11: SitcomStudying: Sitcom Dads: For Lucy’s 75th anniversary, a sitcom series starts with the clich├ęd extremes of sitcom dads and the men in the middle.

October 12: SitcomStudying: Friends: The series continues with three dark sides of the mega-successful 90s sitcom.

October 13: SitcomStudying: Grace and Frankie: Two ways the Netflix sitcom pushes our cultural boundaries and one way it happily does not, as the series laughs (tracks) on.

October 14: SitcomStudying: Wandavision: One way the innovative Marvel show embodies the best of sitcoms, and one way it reflects the worst.

October 15: SitcomStudying: Why We Love Lucy: On its 75th anniversary, why the groundbreaking sitcom’s comfortable familiarity actually reflects its most radical elements.

October 16-17: Crowd-sourced SitcomStudying: The series concludes with one of my more multi-vocal crowd-sourced posts in a long time—add your thoughts in comments!

October 18: Work in Progress: Graduate English Chair: A series on some of the balls I’m juggling this Fall starts with the crises and changes I’m facing in a new role, and how you can contribute!

October 19: Work in Progress: Lesson Plan for CT Humanities: The series continues with the next stage in the happily long afterlife of a very early online piece of mine.

October 20: Work in Progress: SSN Boston: A tribute to the three amazing folks with whom I work in my role as SSN Boston Chapter co-leader, as the series continues.

October 21: Work in Progress: NEASA and NeMLA: Some of the ways you can get involved with my two favorite scholarly organizations!

October 22: Work in Progress: Two Sandlots: The series concludes with a quick update on my next book and its new subtitle!

October 25: GhostStudying: The Turn of the Screw: My annual Halloween series kicks off with two cultural fears lurking beneath Henry James’ gripping ghost story.

October 26: GhostStudying: Beloved: The series continues with a surprisingly timely post on the psychological and historical sides to Toni Morrison’s haunting masterpiece.

October 27: GhostStudying: Haunted Sites: Three of America’s many symbolic haunted sites, as the series scares on.

October 28: GhostStudying: Ghostly Contacts in Cinema: AmericanStudies lessons from three films about contact with the afterlife.

October 29: GhostStudying: Ghost Stories: The series concludes with psychological and historical layers to the enduring appeal of ghost stories. Happy Halloween!

Next series begins Monday,

Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, October 29, 2021

October 29, 2021: GhostStudying: Ghost Stories

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

[NOTE: This post originally appeared a few years back, which is why I refer to my now very-teenage sons as ‘tweens—and I should note we have begun to share more beloved books as well!]

On a more psychological and a more historical side to the enduring appeal of ghost stories.

There isn’t a lot of overlap between this AmericanStudier’s favorite books when he was a ‘tween and those of my two ‘tween (although soon to be teenage!) sons, but one series that does feature on both of our lists is Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Featuring three total books, from 1981’s original through 1984’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and 1991’s Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, and soon to be a major motion picture (if one that from the description I’m quite sure will be loosely adapted at best from the books), the Scary Stories series has been an enduringly popular spooky presence for young audiences for nearly four decades now. And while the books feature scary stories in a number of different genres and forms, I would argue that the ghost story is consistently at their heart, from the original’s “The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers” to the sequel’s “The Guests” to the final book’s “The Dead Hand” and many more. As most of this week’s texts and topics likewise illustrate, there’s clearly just something about ghost stories that we keep coming back to, that keeps them firmly and squirmingly in our collective psyche.

On one level, I think ghost stories and the discomfort and fears they invoke appeal to different elements in our psyches than do other horror tales. Much of horror is about external threats, bogeymen or creatures clearly distinct from us; certainly some of them can turn ordinary humans into threats as well (such as vampires and zombies), but nonetheless the fundamental threat in those kinds of stories comes from something overtly not-us (and thus easy not to believe in). Whereas ghosts are entirely us, our fellow humans with whom we know for a fact we share this world—and given the belief across religions and cultures in some form of an afterlife, it’s not difficult to imagine that we likewise share the world with humans we can no longer see but who remain in some form. Even for someone who does not believe in either an afterlife or ghosts (as I will admit I do not), I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’m pretty sure those things don’t exist—but there’s a level of uncertainty compared to, for example, my certainty that vampires and zombies do not exist. To put it simply, it’s difficult if not impossible to separate the concept of ghosts from other forms of spirituality that define much of human society and existence—and the individual and collective needs for those spiritual beliefs thus help explain the scarier flipside represented by ghost stories.

At the same time, to live in the world in 2018 in particular means that we’re surrounded constantly by layer upon layer of history. Even a relatively young nation like the United States has centuries of such histories layered beneath us, to say nothing of the Native American histories that extend back much further still (and help explain ghost stories like those about the wendigo, of course). Yet much of the time, at least in the U.S. as I argued in comparing it to Rome in this post, we act as if history is something that can be localized to particular sites or spaces, something we can visit and learn about but not necessarily a constant presence in our communities. Deep down I think we know better though, and perhaps the continued popularity of ghost stories also reflects a recognition that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past—and thus that at any moment it can rise up from the ground or out of the air and grab hold of us. That’s a pretty scary thought to be sure, but as the more complicated and even friendly ghosts in many of this week’s stories illustrate, it doesn’t have to be, not if we first admit the ghostly but real presence of the past and then see where those stories and ghosts might lead us.

October Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Thursday, October 28, 2021

October 28, 2021: GhostStudying: Ghostly Contacts in Cinema

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

On quick AmericanStudies lessons from three films about contact with the afterlife.

1)      Ghost (1990): I bet you could stump a lot of movie buffs with the fact that the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore-Whoopi Goldberg romantic thriller was the highest-grossing film of 1990, and indeed if we adjust for inflation is in the top 100 highest-grossing American films of all time. Box office isn’t a measure of quality or enduring importance, of course, but it does at least indicate a film that both reflected and influenced the cultural zeitgeist. And while that much-parodied pottery scene has lingered the most, I would argue that it’s the casting of Goldberg that’s particularly significant—Swayze and Moore as romantic leads was quite expected, but in many ways the film belongs to Goldberg’s psychic/medium character, which fundamentally shifted perceptions of the largely comic actress and won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of course the character could be located in the long and problematic tradition of the “magical negro” trope (in cinema and otherwise), but I would argue that Goldberg brings enough depth and dimension to the role to make her a meaningful and indeed central character in her own right.

2)      The Sixth Sense (1999; SPOILERS in what follows): The ghostly medium at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s smash hit (itself the second-highest grossing film of its year and I would argue even more of a zeitgeist-changer than Ghost) couldn’t be more distinct from Goldberg’s character. Played by the preternaturally (supernaturally?) talented young Haley Joel Osment, just eleven years old when the film was released, Sixth’s Cole Sear is a profoundly troubled and sad young boy who, with the help of Bruce Willis’ equally sad and troubled child psychological Malcolm Crowe, finds a way to make peace with his ability to see and communicate with the dead. While Cole’s character is thus partly in conversation with the kinds of troubled and possessed children long featured in texts like Monday’s focus The Turn of the Screw, he’s actually revealed to be far more proactive and powerful than them, not subject to the film’s horrors so much as a hero who can respond to and even conquer them. One of many ways that Shyamalan’s wonderful film changed cultural narratives and images.

3)      The Gift (2000): This supernatural thriller might have the best pedigree of all these films: directed by horror legend Sam Raimi, written by Billy Bob Thornton (and supposedly based on his mother’s own supernatural abilities), and starring an all-star cast including Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, and Katie Holmes (as a murdered girl into whose death Blanchett’s psychic protagonist begins to gain unwanted but crucial insight). Yet it thoroughly flopped (making only $12 million at the US box office, against a $10 million budget), and so has largely disappeared from our collective cultural memory. I’m not here to rehabilitate the film, which I saw once on home video and which left virtually no impression. But I will say that in its Georgia swampland setting, The Gift does represent a minor but interesting contribution to the larger genre of Southern Gothic, and Blanchett’s tortured widow Annie Wilson is defined at least as much through her relationships and roles within that rural Southern community and society as by her titular abilities to see and communicate with the dead.

Last GhostStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

October 27, 2021: GhostStudying: Haunted Sites

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

First, no post on American haunted sites should fail to acknowledge Colin Dickey’s wonderful book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016). Dickey’s book is the gold standard for all things haunted sites and AmericanStudies, and you should check it out! Here, I just wanted to highlight briefly three examples of representative, telling such haunted American spaces:

1)      San Diego’s El Campo Santo Cemetery: No post on haunted sites should fail to include at least one cemetery, and San Diego’s El Campo Santo is a good choice, not only because it’s old (first used in 1849) and reported to be haunted, but also and especially because those hauntings, like San Diego itself, reveal the region’s and nation’s truly multiethnic history. Both Native American and Hispanic ghosts have been reported in El Campo Santo, and that would only be fitting for a city in which the multi-century multi-cultural histories that include those among other cultures are both officially minimized at times and yet ever-present and impossible to escape. Nothing scary about that, unless you find yourself in El Campo Santo after the San Diego sun has set…

2)      Savannah’s William Kehoe House: Savannah has long been known for its mysterious and supernatural sides, as illustrated by the popular 1994 John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (and its successful 1997 film adaptation). The city has lots of supposedly haunted sites to choose from, but the 1892 William Kehoe House is certainly a good example: haunted by the apparently friendly apparitions of Irish immigrant turned iron magnate (and, yes, Confederate veteran—this is postbellum Georgia we’re talking about) William, his wife Annie, and a few of their ten children; and now turned into a popular bed and breakfast, because who wouldn’t want to spend the night amongst the ghosts? If El Campo Santo is the yin of haunted sites, the Kehoe House certainly seems like the yang.

3)      Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary: And then there’s Eastern State, which is kind of a combination of those two types: a ruined prison that’s supposedly haunted by the lost souls of many of its former inmates; and yet a commercial enterprise, one that particularly makes money come Halloween season by marketing those haunted souls as a tourist attraction (although it seems that that tradition has come to an end this year). The line between history and tourism, supernatural and commerce, is always somewhat blurry when it comes to these haunted sites, but Eastern State just steps all over that line and asks us to cross back and forth freely to explore these different American histories and stories. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound scary at all, so much as important and fun!

Next GhostStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

October 26, 2021: GhostStudying: Beloved

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

On the psychological and historical sides to Toni Morrison’s haunting masterpiece.

A few years ago I wrote about (and, fortunately if belatedly, corrected) the shame of not having covered Moby-Dick in my first eight years of blogging in this space. Well, I could certainly say the same for Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), one of the most acclaimed American novels of the 20th century and a hugely important work of historical fiction, African American literature, postmodern fiction, and more. (I did write about it in a paragraph of this post on representations of the Middle Passage, if that counts for anything!) It was largely thanks to Beloved that Morrison became in 1993 the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, a truly groundbreaking moment in world literary and cultural history (and one, to be clear, that she deserved well before Beloved’s publication, but that was likely cemented by that book and moment). I’ve also had the chance to teach excerpts from or the whole of Morrison’s novel in many different classes, and have found that it’s one of those rare works that is both tremendously dense and demanding and yet entirely rewards all effort put into it. Beloved is quite simply a magisterial novel.

It’s also, at its heart, a ghost story (sorry, NYT, but I don’t agree with that piece!). Yet without minimizing the actual horror or thriller sides to Morrison’s novel (I hope by now it’s beyond clear to any consistent reader that I have absolutely no problem with genre fiction), I would argue that Beloved’s titular ghost is at least as symbolic and thematic as she is scary. Perhaps the clearest element to that symbolism is psychological: the novel’s protagonist Sethe, like her historical inspiration Margaret Garner, has killed one of her young children rather than allow her to be captured into a state of slavery; and it stands to reason that she would be haunted by the spectral presence of that lost child (or, more exactly, of the woman she might have grown up to be, and a symbolically pregnant woman at that). The historian Kidada Williams has researched and written powerfully about the psychological effects of racial violence; while of course Sethe’s and Garner’s acts of violence are far different from those committed by the Klan against African Americans, they are inspired by the same kinds and systems of racial terrorism and would certainly produce their own forms of psychological trauma. Of course it is Schoolteacher (the novel’s hateful slaveowner) who truly deserves Beloved’s ghostly presence and wrath, but it stands to reason that a sensitive and thoughtful character like Sethe would be far more haunted than a villain like Schoolteacher.

But as Slavoj Zizek (back when he was just an edgy psychoanalytical literary critic, rather than some sort of strange post-postmodern performance artist) argues in his reading of Beloved as part of his book The Fragile Absolute (2000), both the guilt and the haunting past symbolized by Beloved are as much communal as they are individual. That is, slavery was already by the late 19th century setting of Morrison’s novel a ghost, literally past but still haunting America in the present so fully and potently; and it’s fair to say that it was no less present and haunting in the 1980s moment of Morrison’s writing, nor in the 2010s one of mine here. To frame a historical novel of slavery as a ghost story might seem to lessen the realism and perhaps the significance of the historical representations; but Morrison’s novel proves that the opposite is true, that the ghost story metaphor offers a pitch-perfect form through which to confront the legacies and effects and presence of our darkest collective (as well as individual) histories. Which, in turn, makes the ghost story all the more scary and compelling.

Next GhostStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Monday, October 25, 2021

October 25, 2021: GhostStudying: The Turn of the Screw

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

On two cultural fears lurking beneath Henry James’s gripping ghost story.

If you had told me back when my teaching career began that Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw would be one of the texts I would teach most frequently, I’d likely have reacted much like Mrs. Grose does when the Governess tells her about seeing the ghost of Peter Quint (inside Turn of the Screw joke, my bad—that means incredulously). But because Turn works so well as a foundation onto which to stack literary theories and critical frames, I’ve taught the ghost story/psychological thriller/potboiler/Victorian class study/metafictional masterpiece numerous times in both my undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Literary Theory: Practical Applications courses (as well as in my Major Author: Henry James course). It’s a fun and engaging book, with so many layers that I’m continually discovering new ones along with the students in each such class. But it’s also a horror story (whether the horror is supernatural or psychological, which depends on how you read it), and as I’ve argued in this space many times, horror stories almost always reveal shared cultural narratives and fears.

In the case of Turn, many of those embedded cultural fears focus on the story’s two young children, Miles and Flora, and what might be (as the governess-narrator sees it, at least) corrupting their innocent minds and souls. The more obvious (of the two I’ll highlight in this post, anyway—nothing is truly straightforward in James’s tortured text) corrupting forces have to do with sex and sexuality. The ghosts who may or may not be haunting or possessing Miles and Flora are of two former servants: Peter Quint, a manservant of whose sexual perversions we hear repeatedly but vaguely; and Miss Jessel, a nanny who was apparently pregnant (perhaps by Quint, perhaps by the children’s uncle) at the time of her mysterious death (likely a suicide). A number of Victorian fears overlap in those details, from worries about working-class influences on upper-class children to mores about sexual freedom. But I would argue that by far the most damning fears at play here have to do specifically with homosexuality, and with the possibly that Quint has corrupted young Miles in that vein (Miles finally admits, if still vaguely, that he “said things” to male friends at school that he should not have said, leading to his expulsion). In an era when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality, it’s fair to say that James is not overstating the cultural panic over such “perversions.”

There’s another 19th century cultural fear potentially buried within the stories of Miles and Flora, however. In the novella’s complex prologue/frame, we learn that the children had initially lived with their parents in the British colony of India; it was only after they were orphaned that they returned to England to live with their bachelor uncle. That’s the last we hear of India in any overt way in the text—neither Miles (10 years old) nor Flora (8) seems to have any memories of their childhood there, or at least none that they share with the governess. Which is, of course, an important distinction to make—the entire novella hinges on the question of what the children are hiding from the governess, and so it’s entirely fair to imagine that there might be secrets other than those of their prior servants that they do not divulge to her (and thus to us, since she’s our narrator and sole perspective). In any case, in an era when James’s home country of the United States was debating seriously the possibility of becoming an empire, and when his adopted country of Great Britain was considering whether and how its empire was worth sustaining, it’s at least important to note that James decides to include this imperial history within the children’s backstory, to make it a part of the heritage and identity of these two troubled young people.

Next GhostStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Friday, October 22, 2021

October 22, 2021: Work in Progress: Two Sandlots

[Lots of balls in the air this Fall, all of which could use input and ideas from y’all! So I thought I’d share a handful here, and also ask to hear about some of what you’re juggling for a crowd-sourced weekend post o’ solidarity and support!]

Not a lot has changed in the ~6 weeks since I shared in this Fall previews post the very exciting news about the new agent with whom I’ll be working on my next book, Two Sandlots. I do however have a new subtitle about which I’m very excited: Baseball, Bigotry, and the Battle for America. As I get deeper into the writing on this new project, you know you’ll be among the first to hear more—just as I very much hope to hear more about all that you’re writing and working on, this Fall as ever!

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. One more time: What do you think? Ideas about this work, or work in progress of your own you’d share?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

October 21, 2021: Work in Progress: NEASA and NeMLA

[Lots of balls in the air this Fall, all of which could use input and ideas from y’all! So I thought I’d share a handful here, and also ask to hear about some of what you’re juggling for a crowd-sourced weekend post o’ solidarity and support!]

I’ve written a ton in this space about the New England American Studies Association (NEASA) and the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), as those respective hyperlinked collections of posts make clear. I don’t have a specific work in progress to share in this post, but wanted to take advantage of the week’s series to recommend both of these truly exemplary and inspiring scholarly organizations to any and all of y’all (somewhat more New England-based folks for NEASA, but honestly anyone anywhere can connect and contribute to, and benefit from, the work of both of these communities). Here’s the current NEASA site, and here’s the NeMLA one. Questions about either or both of them, including how to get involved, the next (2022) conferences, and more? Shoot me an email!

Last work in progress tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Ideas about this work, or work in progress of your own you’d share?

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

October 20, 2021: Work in Progress: SSN Boston

[Lots of balls in the air this Fall, all of which could use input and ideas from y’all! So I thought I’d share a handful here, and also ask to hear about some of what you’re juggling for a crowd-sourced weekend post o’ solidarity and support!]

Earlier this month, the Scholars Strategy Network’s Boston Chapter held a wonderful mixer and networking event on the Boston Waterfront, our first in-person event in more than 18 months. There’s a lot I could say about SSN Boston, but I want to take this opportunity to highlight my two awesome co-leaders and our phenomenal Graduate Fellow:

1)      Parastoo Massoumi: Gotta start with that Grad Fellow, whose work made that mixer/networking event happen (as it has all of our SSN Boston events, in-person and virtual, since she began in this role a couple years back). Parastoo is a grad student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, just the latest stage in a long and already deeply impressive career in education policy, philosophy, and practice. It honestly feels like catching lightning in a bottle that we’ve had the chance to benefit from her perspective, voice, dedication, and passion for a short time before she’s on to all that’s next in that career!

2)      Tiffany Chenault: The first of my two chapter co-leaders, Tiffany is a Sociology Professor at Salem State University, in the same MA state uni system as FSU. Her current project, in every sense of the word (from a book in progress to a personal running goal to a collective leadership role), focuses on the histories, stories, and meanings of Black women running. She’s also been one of the most consistent leaders of my faculty union, the MSCA, and its ongoing efforts to challenge threats to public higher education in MA and beyond. We’re very lucky Tiffany has been able to find space for SSN Boston amidst those multiple, vital leadership roles!

3)      Natasha Warikoo: My second co-leader, Natasha is a Sociology Professor at Tufts University and one of the nation’s leading scholars of diversity and equity in higher education. Her next/forthcoming book, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2022), is one I’m deeply excited for, for personal/familial as well as scholarly reasons. I’m obviously (I hope) not writing this post to pat myself on the back, but I’ll end with this: I was initially solo as the SSN Boston Chapter leader and recruited Tiffany and Natasha to be co-leaders, and I think that was and will remain one of the best ideas I’ve ever had!

Next work in progress tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Ideas about this work, or work in progress of your own you’d share?

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

October 19, 2021: Work in Progress: Lesson Plan for CT Humanities

[Lots of balls in the air this Fall, all of which could use input and ideas from y’all! So I thought I’d share a handful here, and also ask to hear about some of what you’re juggling for a crowd-sourced weekend post o’ solidarity and support!]

On the happily long afterlife of a very early online piece of mine, and a request for input on its newest iteration.

I haven’t gone back and done a thorough search (I’m all for Googling myself, but past a certain point it feels a bit too narcissistic even for our selfie age), but I think it’s quite possible that my first non-blog piece of online writing, the first piece I composed specifically for another online site, was this September 2013 piece for ConnecticutHistory.org on “Yung Wing, the Chinese Educational Mission, and Transnational Connecticut.” I can’t remember exactly how or through whom I got connected to that great site, much of the content of which is I believe produced or at least curated by students at the University of Connecticut; but I know both the initial contact and the piece itself were follow-ups to both my Chinese Exclusion Act book and the ongoing series of book talks I was giving on that project throughout that summer and fall of 2013.

I may not know exactly how it started, but I do know that this very early piece of online writing has surprisingly and delightfully continued to find new readers over the 8 years since, many of whom have reached out to me (not sure why certain pieces of online writing lead to that kind of contact and conversation more fully, but I sure always enjoy it when they do—so if you’re reading this, write to say hi!). The most reach such contact was from Rebecca Furer, a Program Consultant with the educational resource Teach It Connecticut. Teach It works, in Rebecca’s words, “to put Connecticut-based primary sources into the hands of grade 3-12 educators,” and she’s hoping to add an activity about the Chinese Educational Mission. My piece has apparently been one of the resources she’s been working with, and she reached out with a generous invitation for me to help create that activity (likely for high schoolers, although the level can vary and is at least somewhat up to me) and its assorted primary sources, contextual materials, guiding questions, and links/additional resources.

I’m not looking to outsource that work, I promise; but at the same time I’ve never created a lesson plan or resource specifically geared toward high school students (or middle school either), and so if you have any thoughts on what can make for the best and most successful (or, y’know, worst and least successful) such plans and resources, you know I’d love to hear them! Whether in comments here or by email, I can tell you that I will greatly appreciate and benefit a lot from whatever you’d like to share, and thanks so much in advance!

Next work in progress tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Ideas about this work, or work in progress of your own you’d share?

Monday, October 18, 2021

October 18, 2021: Work in Progress: Graduate English Chair

[Lots of balls in the air this Fall, all of which could use input and ideas from y’all! So I thought I’d share a handful here, and also ask to hear about some of what you’re juggling for a crowd-sourced weekend post o’ solidarity and support!]

On crisis, change, and the collective contributions I’d really appreciate.

In the summer of 2006, at the end of my first year at Fitchburg State, I had the chance to teach for the first time in our Graduate English (MA) program. That was more than four years before I started this blog, so I didn’t write about that course, the first iteration of the American Historical Fiction grad class I’ve had the chance to teach a few more times since. But I hope in this blog’s nearly 11 years I’ve made clear just how much teaching in our grad program, along with advising MA theses (now more than a dozen and counting), has been a career highlight for me. I love every kind of teaching I get to do, but the grad classroom (in any version, and perhaps especially so in ours because most of our grad students are also fellow educators) is a unique and special place, and the chance to share my interests with our grad students, to hear their perspectives and ideas, and to talk together about everything from Literary Theory to 20th Century American Women Writers to Analyzing 21st Century America has been nothing short of rejuvenating each and every time.

I say all of that today because as of Fall 2021 that FSU Graduate English program is in a state of severe crisis. Our numbers have shrunk so much that the program was frozen for a year, not able to admit new students and in a state of limbo about its continued existence. Over the last couple years our Graduate English faculty worked to relaunch the program, with a key difference: it will now be offered online as well as in-person, with most classes taught in the hybrid/hyflex model (in-person but with streaming for any students who are not able to be in-person for any reason) and others taught fully online (with the goal being that someone could complete the entire program while living in another state, or even another country). We did so under the leadership of two of my wonderful colleagues: first of Chola Chisunka, our longtime Grad English chair (and one of the people most responsible for hiring me); and then of Aruna Krishnamurthy, who took over the role from Chola when he retired. But this Fall the baton has been passed, and as of this writing I am now the FSU Graduate English program chair.

Taking over a program in such a state of crisis is a challenging thing, and I can’t say I have any magic bullet for how we can move forward successfully. But I know this: my number one goal, really my only goal as of right now, is to find ways to recruit new and more (and different) prospective graduate students. Students, again, who can live anywhere, be in any situation, share nothing other than a desire to receive an MA in English Studies and learn from and with some of the best faculty (and fellow students) I’ve ever met. So I’m asking: do you know of any such students, and/or places or ways we can spread the word about our relaunched and online/hybrid Graduate English MA program? If so, please feel free to share this post, and/or to email me, with those ideas and possibilities. Thanks in advance for any and all help in keeping this phenomenal program going and going strong!

Next work in progress tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Ideas about this work, or work in progress of your own you’d share?

Saturday, October 16, 2021

October 16-17, 2021: Crowd-sourced SitcomStudying

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms, leading up to this crowd-sourced laugh riot featuring fellow SitcomStudiers—add your howlers in comments!]

Responding to Monday’s post on sitcom dads, Glenna Matthews tweets a comparison between “Father Knows Best v. Happy Days with the Fonz knowing best. Great way to document the evolution of youth culture.”

Matthew Goguen analyzes Happy Days differently, calling it “manufactured nostalgia as entertainment.”

For a different kind of response to Monday’s post on sitcom Dads, Irene Martyniuk writes, “This summer there was an anti-sitcom called Kevin Can F**k Himself. In the show, the traditional sitcom scenes were in color and were typical—the husband was essentially a grown man-child who was constantly up to weird hi-jinks with his buddies. He was overweight and slobby but had a hot, helpful, tolerant wife--just like in most sitcoms. However, in this show, when the wife went off on her own, the show went to darker colors and we saw a real person--she has problems and drinks, etc. To be honest, I have not seen the show--I think it streamed on a service I don't get or I was just lazy or too into watching European detective shows with subtitles. But the show got a lot of press because it was both ground-breaking and well-done.”

Responding to Tuesday’s Friends post, Matthew Teutsch adds, “I just rewatched the last 3-4 seasons of Friends, and I agree with all of this. For me, Community was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. I wonder about It’s Always Sunny, mostly because it’s easy for someone watching a show like that to buy into the crap they do.”

 

On Twitter, @policywanks shares, “I really enjoyed the first five seasons of Friends at the time, even knowing it was problematic in many ways. The criticism of its seemingly whites-only NYC was contemporary. After that, it started to wear on me and it has aged really poorly, IMHO.”

 

Diane Hotten writes, “I've tried to re-watch Friends many times, but I just can't get into it given the lack of diversity and sensitivity to culturally important ideas, like diverse representation in sitcoms, since the show ended. Think about Blackish and the hugely popular Ted Lasso.”

Other SitcomStudying responses:

Charlie Hensel nominates Third Rock from the Sun and its portrayal of “life in general from an alien perspective.”

My FSU colleague Kyle Moody nominates “Community, The PJs, Taxi, Martin, Fresh Off the Boat and Everything Sucks.”

Derek Tang highlights, “The Wonder Years—both versions. I think that'd provide some good juxtaposition in looking at how two kids who are so different yet so similar grew up during a turbulent period.” He adds, “For an Asian immigrant perspective, Kim’s Convenience and Fresh Off the Boat are good options, even though they’re pretty much the ONLY options.”

Tamara Verhyen writes, “I’m curious to see the demographics of those who like sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience. I know for me I find it annoying, if it's funny I'll laugh, I don't like to be peer pressured into laughing at an unfunny joke. But I can understand how it might be nostalgic for people. To answer your actual question I loved Clarissa Explains it All and it think it's interesting that they had a live audience. Also Will and Grace would be an interesting study because of it being about modern gay relationships. It seems like that could have had some bad apples ready to protest, so I'm curious about if they vetted the audience.

Jeff Brenner tweets, “Looking forward to your discussion of ‘military’ type shows (McHale’s Navy, F Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, et al) and what they say about our military, other countries’ militaries, and, of course, America.” [ED: I didn’t post on those this week, but now Jeff has added them to the mix!]

Lauren Arrington tweets, “Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda! My read is that Rhoda undoes feminist interventions MTM tried to make. Rhoda: so much body negativity; it’s all about the husband, the mother-in-law stereotypes—really sets up the 80s for US TV.”

Finally, my Saturday Evening Post colleague Troy Brownfield shares a bunch of great SitcomStudying:

Everything Norman Lear did in the 1970s: Social aftermath of the 60s as it pertains to generation gap (All in the Family), race (Jeffersons, Good Times), social issues (Maude), single mothers raising kids (One Day at a Time), etc. Family Ties: Effect of 60s on 80s, rise of the young conservative, how the hippies became 80s parents. Friends: how did it manage to exist outside of almost every major issue of the 90s? (Carol and Susan being the exception). The Big Bang Theory: How did simply naming things (hyperlink NSFW) from subcultures become humor?

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

Friday, October 15, 2021

October 15, 2021: SitcomStudying: Why We Love Lucy

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

On why the groundbreaking sitcom’s comfortable familiarity actually reflects its most radical elements.

While I Love Lucy (1951-57) was one of the first prominent sitcoms, there are a few reasons why its domestic and marital dynamics seem to fit comfortably within existing, familiar tropes, and most of them center directly about star Lucille Ball and her prior professional work. For the years leading up to the sitcom’s debut she had been starring in a CBS Radio program entitled My Favorite Husband, where she played a wacky housewife. When CBS initially balked at her request that a TV adaptation co-star her husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, Lucille and Desi toured as a vaudeville act, performing the same kinds of marital hijinks that they would feature on the sitcom. So by the time Lucille and Desi were given the chance to perform those exaggerated versions of their real-life roles on TV, they—and Lucille especially—had extensive personal and professional experience with such characters and dynamics, helping give the show that impressively lived-in feel from its pilot episode on.

At the same time, I think it’s just as accurate to say that I Love Lucy itself established many of those sitcom domestic and marital tropes that have since come to feel so familiar, and that’s an important reframing because it allows us to see the show for just how radical it really was, in two distinct ways. For one thing, there’s the apparent reason why CBS initially balked at casting Desi are Lucille’s husband in the TV adaptation: their concerns that TV viewers wouldn’t accept a redheaded white woman and a Cuban man as a married couple (even though, again, the two had been married in real life for a decade by that time). What Ball understood, far better it seems than these network executives, was that mass media genres like sitcoms don’t have to simply reflect existing images or narratives (although they far too often settle for doing so); they can also, and perhaps especially, shape such cultural and social conversations. Am I suggesting that I Love Lucy helped create the shifts in attitudes toward cross-cultural marriages that would contribute to the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) a decade later? Well yeah, I guess I am.

Through and because of the show, and more exactly because of how much it brought her star power to wider audiences, Ball was also able to achieve significant professional milestones of her own. Most strikingly, she and Desi founded a TV production company, Desilu, of which she became the first female studio head; when the two divorced in 1960, she bought out his share and cemented her role as the full business and creative director of that successful and influential studio. Lest you think those are hyperbolic adjectives to make my point, here are just four of the TV shows that Desilu produced, all of them during Lucille’s reign as solo studio head post-divorce: the original Star Trek (launched in 1966); the original Mission: Impossible (also 1966); The Andy Griffith Show (launched in 1960); and The Dick Van Dyke Show (launched in 1961). All of those in their own ways became and remain familiar presences within, and contributed enduring tropes to, their respective genres—one more way that I Love Lucy has left its radical imprint on our cultural landscape.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

Thursday, October 14, 2021

October 14, 2021: SitcomStudying: Wandavision

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

On one way the Marvel show embodies the best of sitcoms, and one way it reflects the worst.

I haven’t written much about Marvel movies or the MCU in this space, despite that world occupying a not-insignificant portion of the boys’ lives (and thus of course my own) over the last year or so, and perhaps the reason is that I share at least a bit of the frustration that many others have voiced with how much Marvel & Disney et al have come to dominate our cultural landscape (and how much other franchises like the DC Universe are now seemingly copying that model). But at the same time, I have to say this: each of the three Marvel TV shows released on DisneyPlus so far (Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki) hasn’t just been an entertaining diversion (although they have all been that for sure); each has also grappled in thoughtful and meaningful ways with some pretty big themes and issues. Which is to say, we can gripe about the MCU’s dominance all we want, but we’d also better be willing to engage specifically with what and how these texts are doing. (I’m sure I’ll get to the other two of those series in future posts, or at the very least Falcon which is as interesting on race in America as any recent pop culture work this side of Watchmen.)

Much of the critical conversation around Wandavision has understandably centered on its depictions of grief (not least because the clip at that last hyperlink features perhaps the best single summation of the emotion ever penned), but of course the show is really first and foremost about sitcoms. Not just that it uses and imitates the sitcom form, that is; Wandavision is very much about what the genre does and doesn’t do, include, engage when it comes to family and community and identity, and so on. That formal and thematic throughline blends with the show’s themes of grief in quite potent ways, especially by the stunning and heartbreaking finale (even more SPOILERS in that clip than in this post overall). But it also makes the entire show a really thoughtful engagement with both the genre’s dangers (the way sitcoms can elide some of the darker and more human sides of life, and thus consuming them distract us in potentially destructive ways) and yet at the same time its potential power and value (the way the best of it can also connect us to those sides, as great art of any type can, and through so doing give us renewed life).

Of course lots of sitcoms aren’t “the best of it,” though, and one I’d put in that category is Bewitched, especially for the Salem-specific reasons I detail in this post. And in its own small but not insignificant way, Wandavision echoes that craptastic classic and makes the same historical mistake (more SPOILERS to follow, natch). The show’s eventual villain, the witch Agatha (played wonderfully by the great Kathryn Hahn), is introduced (not as a character overall, as she had been in the show for many episodes by that point, but as Agatha and the villain specifically) through a long episode-opening scene set in (we’re told in the scene’s opening script) Salem in 1693. Which is to say, this isn’t just another pop culture text which reinforces the destructive myth that there were witches in 17th century Salem—by setting this scene the year after the Witch Trials, Wandavision suggests that the town’s cohort of witches endured after the Trials, which to my mind doubly reinforces the Trials’ goal of rooting out this mythologized community (which of course in practice meant killing mostly disadvantaged and disenfranchised folks). Not the biggest element of Wandavision by a long shot, but a frustrating echo of one of American sitcom history’s most negative influences.

Lucy post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

October 13, 2021: SitcomStudying: Grace and Frankie

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

[NB. This post originally appeared in 2015, but I would argue all of its points have only deepened with all the G&F seasons since!]

On two ways the Netflix sitcom pushes our cultural boundaries, and one way it happily does not.

The Netflix original sitcom Grace and Frankie (2015) features one of the more distinctive and yet appropriately 2015 premises I’ve seen: two lifelong male friends and law partners come out to their wives as gay, in love with each other, and leaving their wives for each other and a planned gay marriage. The premise alone would make the show one of the more groundbreaking on our cultural landscape, but the fact that the two men are played by two of our most prominent and respected actors, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, makes this nuanced, complex, warm, and so so thoroughly human portrayal of a same-sex relationship even more striking. It seems to me that a greal deal more has been written about Transparent and Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of that show’s transgender protagonist than about Sheen and Waterston in Grace and Frankie—and without taking anything away from Tambor’s equally nuanced and impressive performance, I would argue that seeing Sheen and Waterston in these roles represents an equally significant step forward in our cultural representations of the spectrums of sexuality, sexual preference, and identity in America.

What’s particularly interesting about Grace and Frankie, moreover, is that Sheen and Waterston’s characters and storyline represents only half of the show’s primary focuses—and the other half, focused on the responses and next steps and identities and perspectives of their former wives Grace and Frankie, is in its own ways just as ground-breaking. Played to comic, tragic, human perfection by legendary actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, these two characters represent to my mind two of the most in-depth and multi-layered portrayals of older women in television history. That there has been some behind the scenes controversy about the paychecks of Fonda and Tomlin in comparison to those of Sheen and Waterston, while of course frustrating and tied to broader current issues and arguments, also seems to add one more pitch-perfect layer to the ways in which the show asks us to think about the experiences, lives, and worlds of older women in a society that tends (as this scene highlights with particular clarity) not to include them in our cultural landscape much at all. In a year when the single leading candidate for the presidency (I refuse to consider Donald Trump for that title; [2021 Ben: man I wish I had been right]) is herself a woman over 65, Grace and Frankie engages with our current moment in this important way as well.

At the time that it’s four main characters and their storylines are thus so groundbreaking, however, I would argue (to parallel things I said about Longmire in this post) that in its use of the conventions and traditions of the sitcom form Grace and Frankie feels very comfortably familiar. That might be one reason why Transparent, which blends genres much more into something like a dramedy, has received more critical attention and popular buzz (of course the parallels to the Caitlyn Jenner story are another such reason). Yet just because Grace and Frankie stays more within those familiar sitcom lines (featuring everything from physical comedy and wacky misunderstandings to recurring catchphrases and jokes) doesn’t make it less stylistically successful—indeed, I might argue that using such familiar forms yet making them feel fresh and funny is itself a significant aesthetic success, and one that Grace and Frankie most definitely achieved for this viewer. Moreover, there’s a reason why the sitcom is one of television’s oldest and most lasting forms—it taps into some of our most enduring audience desires, our needs for laughter and comfort that not only continue into our present moment, but have an even more necessary place alongside the antiheroes and dark worlds that constitute so much of the best of current television. Just one more reason why I’m thankful for Grace and Frankie.

Next SitcomStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

October 12, 2021: SitcomStudying: Friends

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

Let me start by saying that I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of Friends over the years; once they got into their rhythm, this was one of the better ensemble casts of any sitcom in history, and produced lots of very funny as well as many touching moments over the years. But at the same time, like so many hugely popular cultural works, this TV show also reflected and extended some of the darker elements in America’s collective psyche. Here are three such dark sides to the mega-successful sitcom:

1)      Anti-Intellectualism: As Richard Hofstadter knew all too well, there’s been a longstanding, influential current of anti-intellectualism in American society. And in its consistently snarky and often downright nasty portrayal of Ross Geller (David Schwimmer)’s job as a college professor of paleontology, Friends unfortunately played into this current and to the stereotypes of eggheaded academics on which it has often relied. Each character’s work world was the subject of plenty of jokes, but I would argue that only Ross’s was so thoroughly tied to the character’s worst personality traits and tendencies, with virtually no attention to any other elements of the profession. Not smart, Friends.

2)      Homophobia: To be honest, there’s not much I can say about Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry)’s constant homophobia that wasn’t said already in this great Slate piece. But I would particularly single out the character of Chandler’s father, who is either a cross-dressing man or a transgendered woman (it’s never made quite clear, but the character is played by Kathleen Turner), and whom both Chandler and the show treat almost entirely as a combination of cringing embarrassment and shameful joke. Transparent or Grace and Frankie this most definitely isn’t, folks—and even for its own late 90s/early 00s moment, Friends was behind the curve.

3)      Diversity: None other than the great Ta-Nehisi Coates has referenced the thoroughgoing lack of racial diversity on Friends, as well as the careless way the show recycled the same plotline for its two prominent African American guest stars, Aisha Tyler and Gabrielle Union. But the show’s diversity problem was even broader and deeper than that: this was a show set in New York City in the late 20th century, and the only prominent Asian character was literally fresh off the plane from China; I can’t remember any significant Hispanic characters or indeed prominent characters of any non-white ethnicity other than the three I’ve mentioned (and that’s over ten seasons!). I’m not arguing that one of the six friends would have had to be non-white, necessarily—but if their turn of the 21st century American world is so completely white, well, that’s an indictment of either the characters or the show.

Next SitcomStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?