Censoring Diversity Under the Guise of “Political Correctness” #BookBanning

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“He had us all, the way only a pretty [n-word] can.”

That’s what Yunior, the narrator of Junot Díaz’s Nilda, says about his older brother–only he doesn’t abbreviate the racial epithet. Instead, he uses the entire word, quite a few times. Yunior is a Dominican-American teenager who covets his older brother’s girlfriend, a girl with “super-long hair” and “a chest like you wouldn’t believe.” Nilda, a poignant glimpse into Yunior’s life, appeared in The New Yorker at the end of the last millennium.

A few years ago, a teacher in New York City assigned this story to her ninth grade English class, allegedly invoking the ire of school administrators who disapproved of Díaz’s use of the “n-word.” When this happened, the teacher was already struggling with the district over her lesson on the Central Park Five, a tragic case in which five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1989.

The teacher lost her job, and so she sued the New York City Department of Education, claiming that district officials retaliated against her in violation of her free speech and due process rights. According to the lawsuit, Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, an assistant principal allegedly told the teacher to be “way more balanced” in how she taught the Central Park Five case because the administrator “feared that it would unnecessarily ‘rile up’ black students.”* Regarding Junot Díaz’s Nilda, a school administrator allegedly ordered the teacher to remove it from the lesson because of its use of the n-word.

Two weeks ago, on November 23, 2016, a federal court in New York dismissed the teacher’s case. The court concluded that her termination was not a violation of her rights because school districts may “limit the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the limitations are ‘reasonably related to pedagogical concerns’” and the disagreement between the teacher and school administrators regarded “the content and tone of a lesson,” which apparently is not entitled to First Amendment protections.

Courts generally give schools wide latitude when it comes to developing curricula, so I guess I’m not surprised by the outcome. It’s a shame, though.

It’s concerning that the school district would (allegedly) censor a lesson about the Central Park Five based on its fear of “rile[d] up black students.” That stereotype has no place in our educational system, though it’s hardly surprising that it’s there. The educational system harbors and reinforces all the same biases the criminal justice system does.

It’s also concerning that the school district would (allegedly) ban Nilda. I understand how offensive and controversial the n-word is. As I’ve said previously on this blog: “[T]he N-word has extraordinary force in our culture, perhaps greater force than virtually any other bigoted insult.”

School officials have a reason to worry when words that have the power to inflict pain become part of the curriculum, but in this case, we’re not talking about small children. We’re talking about 9th graders, students old enough to understand the harm racial epithets cause and the literary context in which the words are used.

As HLS Professor Randall Kennedy has pointed out, the n-word can “be said in many ways, put to many uses, and mean many things.” The context matters. In Díaz’s story, Yunior does not use the n-word maliciously.

Nevertheless, a school official allegedly ordered the teacher to remove the story from the curriculum, treating it as though it were no different from KKK or neo-nazi literature. Removal of that story from the curriculum silences a diverse voice in a subject in which non-white voices are typically rare: English literature.

That’s unfortunate, especially when the only meaningful exposure some people have to diversity comes through literature. Without it, it’s harder to break down the stereotypes that reinforce our societal biases.

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*Citation: Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162561 (S.D. N.Y. Nov. 23, 2016). [See the link in the post to read the opinion]

What Can Best-Selling & Award-Winning Authors Tell Us About the Writing Process?

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Have you ever wondered about your favorite author’s writing process? Do they jot down ideas in a journal? Do they rely on an outline? Conduct research?

Recently, a group of academics explored these types of questions in Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, which was published this month in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. The researchers hoped that professional authors could shed light on the writing process and provide insight into the way educators should teach writing to our children.

To meet these goals, the researchers sent eleven questions about the writing process to fifty professional writers, and received thirty-nine responses, including from authors Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, and Jane Yolen.

What did the researchers learn from the responses? Unsurprisingly, they found that “writing is a craft that is practiced differently by authors. Some writers carefully plan and script stories, as does Lois Lowry. Others, such as Jerry Spinelli, simply start writing and let the story unveil itself.”

The authors of the study go on to develop advice for writing instructors based on these predictable results, including advising educators to (1) “allow students to experiment with different ways to incubate their ideas: keeping a writing journal, jotting ideas on loose paper, talking with others, and so forth;” and (2) “remind students that writing often starts with an outline but maintains flexibility…” It’s all good advice, though I doubt a survey of professional authors was necessary to develop it.

The study is fun to read, largely because of the extraneous “sound bites” from authors that let us peek inside their creative minds, but I question whether thirty-nine “best-selling” and “award-winning” authors can provide much insight into how educators should structure writing programs in schools.

First of all, what type of writing are we talking about here? The professional authors write a range of materials — from fiction to journalism pieces — and they probably don’t write all types of material equally well. A fabulous writer of dystopian middle grade fiction might have little advice for students on how to write a persuasive article, and a journalist may have little wisdom to provide to students on creative writing.

Second, just because these authors have been successful doesn’t mean they produce “high quality” work from which students should learn. I’m a fan of the survey respondents I recognize in this study — like Lowry, Spinelli, and Yolen — but one-third of the respondents were anonymous and all were chosen because of their “accessibility” to one of the authors of the study.

The fact that these authors have produced best-selling and award-winning books is nice, but not necessarily meaningful. Jerry B. Jenkins, a survey respondent and the author of 16 New York Times Best Sellers, touches on the arbitrariness of success in his “sound bite” on sensing which of his works will be successful:

After 175 published books, I have learned I have no clue. What I believe is my absolute best work is often ignored, while something I have mixed feelings about may win an award or become a bestseller. The market decides.

The market decides the success of a book based on a variety of factors, and the quality of the writing might not be among them. For example, Fifty Shades of Grey topped the best-seller list and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, but I doubt many educators would want to ask its author for advice on teaching children how to write–and not just because it’s erotica.

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Citation: Michael R. Sampson, et al. Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, 60 Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 265 (Nov/Dec 2016). [published online, May 2016]

Oh, The People You’ll Sue! (When You’re Dr. Seuss Enterprises)

Dr. Seuss Enterprises doesn’t want ComicMix LLC to publish Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go!, which borrows elements from Dr. Seuss’s iconic children’s books without paying a licensing fee for the privilege.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises alleges copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition against ComicMix and others involved in the project. According to the complaint, the allegedly infringing work is a mixture of Star Trek and several of Dr. Seuss’s books, including Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Lorax, and The Sneetches and Other Stories.

ComicMix knew a lawsuit like this one might happen, stating on their Kickstarter campaign (according to the Complaint, which is available here):

While we firmly believe that our parody, created with love and affection, fully falls within the boundary of fair use, there may be some people who believe that this might be in violation of their intellectual property rights. And we may have to spend time and money proving it to people in black robes. And we may even lose that.

We’ll see what those “people in black robes” decide. If I were one of them, I’d say Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! is clearly a parody that falls into the “fair use” exception to copyright infringement.

Excerpts of Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! appear in Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s Complaint, including:

oh-the-places-youll-boldly-go-allegedly

Under American copyright law, an author’s estate has the exclusive right to a deceased author’s works for many decades after the author’s death.  Seuss died in 1991, hence the rise of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to posthumously make money off of his works. A derivative work like Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! is not infringement if it’s “fair use,” which involves four factors:

(1) the “purpose and character of the use” (is it educational? Is it commercial? Is it transformative?);
(2) “the nature of the copyrighted work;”
(3) “the amount and substantiality of the portion” of the original worked used;
(4) the impact of the use on the original work’s market.
Copyright Act, 17. U.S.C. § 107.

Based on the excerpts in the Complaint, Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! is a transformative work that meets the definition of a “parody.”  According to the United States Supreme Court, quoting the American Heritage Dictionary, a parody is a “literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule.” Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (holding that a commercial parody may fall into the “fair use” exception to copyright infringement).

Who would confuse Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! with any of Dr. Seuss’s original books? No one.

Would Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! reduce Dr. Seuss’s marketability? Probably not. If anything, parodies like Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! increase the marketability of the original stories because they encourage people to revisit them.

In this case, it’s hard to see how Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! harms Dr. Seuss Enterprises. They assert that they’re missing out on a licensing fee opportunity, but a derivative project might not happen at all if the authors have to pay a toll for the privilege of borrowing elements from a previous work for the purpose of parody. Instead, by filing this lawsuit through their DLA Piper lawyers, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is using the court system to squelch creativity in the arts, which is the exact opposite of what copyright law aims to accomplish.

My other half, Mr. AMB, summed up Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s litigious behavior in his own parody of Dr. Seuss’s rhyming style:

Oh, the people you’ll sue! There is pain to be done!
There are artists to be gored. There are claims to be won.
And the magical things you can do with a corporate lawyer
will make you the free expression destroyer.
Rich! You’ll be as rich as grave robbers can be,
with social media trashing your brand with glee.

For me, it’s this unnecessary lawsuit — not the allegedly infringing work — that detracts from Dr. Seuss’s legacy. I’m less likely to share his books with the children in my life now.

The Aroma of Autumn

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Autumn greets us in September with the perfume of ripening apples and the smoky smell of burning logs, and then leaves us a few months later with the earthy odor of decaying leaves and the acidic scent of decomposing fruit and seeds. Of all of autumn’s aromas, the one that defines the season for me is the smell of rotting ginkgo nuts.

Peter Crane’s Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, a biography of the ancient species, describes the stench of ginkgo seeds as akin to rancid butter or human vomit. He writes:

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My backyard is full of ginkgo trees, which I’ve learned to love despite the smelly seeds the females of the species produce each fall. They are elegant trees with beautiful, fan-shaped leaves. They are among the last trees to change color, turning gold for two or three weeks before shedding en masse. Golden ginkgo leaves grace the cover of Amelia Elkins Elkins, my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and the trees also make appearances in both Two Lovely Berries, my new adult novel, and Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins (forthcoming, January 2017). For example:

  • Amelia Elkins Elkins:
    amelia-elkins-elkins-ginkgo-quote
  • Two Lovely Berries:
    two-lovely-berries-ginkgo-quote
  • Anusha of Prospect Corner:
    anusha-of-prospect-corner-ginkgo-quote

The ginkgo trees in my garden are suburban giants, bigger than their city cousins but smaller than the species is capable of growing. All of my ginkgo trees are male except, unfortunately, for the tree closest to my house. That one has covered my back porch with its noxious seeds every year but this one. For some reason, there are no seeds this year, and for some reason, I miss them. Autumn just isn’t the same without their aroma.

“Everything Happens for the Best.” Really?

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I’ve heard this saying more than once over the last week: “Everything happens for the best.” It’s an old teaching, rooted in religion and philosophy, that we use for reassurance during bleak times.

Does anyone actually believe it’s true? Does everything really happen for the best?

In Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which I’ve been reading with my twins, “everything happens for the best” is one of the “half-baked ideas” served at the Royal Banquet for dessert:

“We’re having a special treat today,” said the king as delicious smells of homemade pastry filled the banquet hall. “By royal command the pastry chefs have worked all night in the half bakery to make sure that— ”

“The half-bakery?” questioned Milo.

“Of course, the half bakery,” snapped the king. “Where do you think half-baked ideas come from?”

[…]

“They’re very tasty,” explained the Humbug, “but they don’t always agree with you. Here’s one that is very good.” He handed it to Milo and, through the icing and nuts, Milo saw that it said, “THE EARTH IS FLAT.”

“People swallowed that one for years,” commented the Spelling Bee, “but it’s not very popular these days— d-a-y-s.”  […]

Milo looked at the great assortment of cakes, which were being eaten almost as quickly as anyone could read them. […]

“I wouldn’t eat too many of those if I were you,” advised Tock. “They may look good, but you can get terribly sick of them.”

“Don’t worry,” Milo replied; “I’ll just wrap one up for later,” and he folded his napkin around “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR THE BEST.”

Why would anyone think it’s helpful to say “everything happens for the best” to someone who’s grieving the results of our recent presidential election? In my experience, these platitude-bearing people aren’t trolls who supported or enabled Donald Trump. They seem to be liberal-minded people who think that sayings like “everything happens for the best” or “everything happens for a reason” are comforting phrases, even though they’re nothing more than half-baked ideas.

How can Trump’s presidency be “for the best” for Americans facing an increased risk of harassment as a result of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and proposed religious ban? How can it be “for the best” for people at risk of losing their health insurance or their right to express breastmilk in the workplace if the Affordable Care Act is hastily repealed? How can it be “for the best” for people who might lose their access to safe reproductive health care with the next appointment to the Supreme Court (making unsafe procedures the only option for many women)? How can it be “for the best” for LGBT citizens when the next Vice-President supports medically-unsound conversion therapy? How can it be “for the best” for anyone when an unscientific climate-change denier is in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency transition?

Ah, but “this too shall pass,” right? I’ve been hearing that one a lot lately too. Well, for those of us worried about the health and safety of our families — and the health and safety of the planet — four years is a long time to wait.

At best, we will survive this, as long as (1) we can trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes, and (2) everyone who sees Trump for what he really is does whatever they can to keep our democratic institutions intact during his reign. To prevent Mr. Trump from turning all of his hateful, half-baked campaign promises into a reality, we have to:

*Organize around the issues that matter to us;

*Donate to organizations that will protect our rights and our environment;

*Call our lawmakers (email will not do);

*Protest when necessary; and

*VOTE in the mid-term elections to make sure Congress — particularly the Senate — will be a realistic check on the President’s power

Thankfully, though, Donald Trump — a frequent flip-flopper — has rarely meant anything he has said thus far. His pathological lying gives me reason to hope that the next four years *might* not be as bad as I fear — or, I suppose, with a man as unpredictable as Trump is, it could also be worse.  Either way, at this point, I’d rather not know what the future holds under the Trump Administration than know for certain that it holds what he has promised.

To use yet another half-baked cliché, ignorance is bliss, at least until I learn to cope with our new reality. It’s going to take a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’m going to read.

No Ordinary Girl

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Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, but she also penned a large number of short stories and poems. Hundreds of these pieces are now available for everyone to read through an amazing digital archive known as KindredSpaces.

One of the available stories is The Punishment of the Twins, published in Blue Book Magazine in 1909. In this charming tale, we meet Billy and Priscilla Carr, a set of mischievous twins who rebel from their Great-Aunt Jane’s stern authority. The mastermind of the pair is Priscilla, whose independent spirit challenges the gender norms of her time. She prefers to wear pants, explaining to a set of awestruck boys with whom she plans to go fishing, “You boys don’t know how well off you are, never having to fuss with skirt and frills.”

As one of the boys recognizes, Priscilla is “no ordinary girl” — at least for the turn of the last century. In Priscilla’s world, no one questions the idea that “sex has its limitations.” Thus, as Montgomery writes, “Priscilla could wear masculine garments undauntedly [while] her feminine soul recoiled from worms.”

My 21st Century daughters balk at the concept of “masculine garments” and “feminine souls.” My girls don’t mind worms, and most of the women in their lives wear pants more often than skirts or dresses.

What is “ordinary” for a girl to do today is quite different from what gender norms allowed women to do in Montgomery’s time. We’ve come a long way in a hundred years, as women have inched toward equality with men in Montgomery’s country (Canada) and also in mine (the United States).

On November 8th, we learned that we haven’t come as far as many of us had hoped. In the United States, a highly qualified candidate who happens to be female lost the presidential election to a man with no qualifications who boasts about grabbing women by the genitals.

Sadly, Hillary’s loss to Trump shows us that little girls who dream of becoming President remain “extraordinary.” It would be astonishing for one of them to succeed in a country that still believes women just aren’t qualified for the job.

A Very Big Cat, Quite a Small Tiger, Or My Kid? #HarryPotter

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I didn’t read much during the last two weeks of October because I spent every second of my free time turning my 8-year-old daughter into Crookshanks for Halloween. Crookshanks is Hermione’s cat from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know why I thought I could *make* a Crookshanks costume when I couldn’t find one to buy. A black cat costume just wouldn’t do. Crookshanks is an enormous, orange furball:

Ron buckled as something huge and orange came soaring from the top of the highest cage, landed on his head, and then propelled itself, spitting madly, at Scabbers. […] “What was that?”

“It was either a very big cat or quite a small tiger,” said Harry.

“Where’s Hermione?”

“Probably getting her owl—”

They made their way back up the crowded street to the Magical Menagerie. As they reached it, Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.

“You bought that monster?” said Ron, his mouth hanging open.

“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said Hermione, glowing.

That was a matter of opinion, thought Harry. The cat’s ginger fur was thick and fluffy, but it was definitely a bit bowlegged and its face looked grumpy and oddly squashed, as though it had run headlong into a brick wall. Now that Scabbers was out of sight, however, the cat was purring contentedly in Hermione’s arms.

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, Chapter Four

I can’t knit or crochet (unfortunately), so I purchased a beige sweater and then looped orange yarn through it. This took forever. I worked on it in the office during my lunch breaks and every evening while listening to election coverage. I should’ve listened to audiobooks instead. That would’ve been better for my mental health.

Anyway, here’s Crookshanks standing with Sally Ride and an octopus:

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Like all cats, Crookshanks sheds. This morning, I found little pieces of orange yarn in my hair, dangling from my purse, and trailing from the bottom of my shoe. It’s going to be a long time before I work with yarn again. I’ve learned my lesson!