How to Make Classes Work, Step Two

Wear a suit to every class.

No exceptions.

Because of some weird harassment from [redacted], I had an intense panic attack at the beginning of the semester that left me so sick and weak that it was impossible to wear a suit for the first two weeks. Anxiety may be psychosomatic, but it’s still very much a physical illness.

You may be thinking that I must be some sort of crazy person, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I’m actually one of the most normal people I know. If you sat next to me on an airplane or met me at a wedding reception, you’d think I was normal too. I like to talk about normal adult things like pets and vacations and real estate and other people’s children. I’m even a little boring, but in a totally normal and average way.

So how does a normcore person like me with no history of health issues turn into a nervous wreck? Stewing in a toxic environment for a few years will do that to you, and at this point I’m having trouble imagining a more toxic environment than academia.

That’s by design – the university system is structured to consume so much of your life (see my essay about how tenure works) that you stop being able to imagine what the world outside looks like. This isn’t healthy, obviously. If I get tenure, one of the first things I’d like to do is to figure out a set of concrete actions that will help to enable the promotion of a culture of kindness, tolerance, and diversity. I genuinely believe that both professors and university administrators (myself included) would be much better at our jobs if we weren’t so stressed out all the time.

Anyway, I think the combination of my casual clothes at the beginning of the semester and the fact that I’m not a cisgender man may have led some of the students to arrive at the conclusion that I am fun.* I actually am fairly easygoing, but I’m always 115% serious in the classroom, and the suit helps convey that message with less room for misinterpretation concerning the level of effort and engagement I expect from my students.

 

* This conclusion is erroneous. I haven’t had fun since 2008.

How to Make Classes Work, Step One

The classroom should have windows.

Every class I’ve taught in a windowless classroom has been difficult.

This is by design.

A built-in feature of the postwar modernist architecture used for a lot of schools and other public buildings in the United States is that it facilitates certain types of social control. For example, if you put students in a room with a low ceiling, poor lighting, no windows, and acoustic features that mute sound, it has a soporific effect. This is meant to make students sluggish, thereby minimizing class disruptions like, you know, a student asking questions or formulating their own ideas.

If this sounds dystopian to you in theory, let me assure you that it’s even more dystopian in practice.

There’s not much I can do about this, to be honest. The last time I tried to request classrooms with windows, I was told that the only time slot available was Saturday morning at 8:00am. The shortage of classrooms at large universities is also by design, even at well-funded flagship state schools located in depopulated areas with declining enrollments. The purpose of this artificial scarcity of basic teaching resources is to keep both students and instructors in a subservient position, but that’s a much longer essay that I have no patience (or emotional energy) to write.

Still, I guess I can at least keep asking. There’s no harm in trying, right?

Nineties Child Starter Pack

The backpack you take home from school weighs more than you do.

We had so much homework, and I mean so much homework. If there’s one thing that’s relatable to all millennials, no matter what sort of neighborhood or economic class they grew up in, it’s that the pressure to get into a good college started in seventh grade, if not earlier.

You use self-deprecating humor because it’s social suicide to acknowledge how hard you’re working.

Also because we’re all working really hard, and only douchebags talk like they’re writing a college admissions essay. Despite the fact that this style of communication has carried over to the Gen Z kids, a lot of older people still take this sort of communication at face value and interpret it literally, which is both disheartening and unintentionally hilarious.

You can never accept a complement, ever.

See above. We’re collectively getting better about this, thankfully.

You always have to pretend to be on a diet or losing weight for sports.

We bore the full brunt of mass media advertising culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and we didn’t have any tools to resist its messaging. Current conversations about “body shaming” and “body positivity” are a direct result of MTV Spring Break setting the standard of what a human being should look like, which turned out to be super unhealthy for people of all races and genders.

Goku is there for you when you need him, and you have no idea Sailor Moon is Japanese.

We didn’t know what anime was until we learned what anime was, at which point we couldn’t get enough of it. Can you blame us? At the time, the only real alternative was Disney. The Disney Renaissance was great and all, but sometimes you just need to watch girls saving the universe while one dude kamehamehas another dude right in the face.

You get on the internet for Pokémon cheat codes and make a cringe adorable first username.

No I didn’t know that there were no cheat codes for Pokémon, and no I will not tell you my username, but I sure did have a lot of fun as a tiny child on the internet.

No amount of hard work or internet literacy will save you, though.

This is especially ironic because people in their early twenties are now hired over people in my generation because they are “digital natives” with “social media expertise.”

The generations ahead of you just will not retire, so your professional career is fucked.

Friends may come and friends may go, and dreams can burst into brilliant life and then fade away, but student debt is forever.

In conclusion, nineties children are stressed out all the time, but at least we got all the good anime and video games.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

Horror Haiku

In the spring of 2014, I made a half-letter size photocopied zine that collected thirty horror-themed haiku. I had so much fun putting it together that I made a second issue the very next week. I was teaching at Notre Dame that year and driving to Chicago practically every weekend to stay sane, and I spent a lot of time at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I took a handful of zines to Quimby’s to ask if they would take them on consignment, and they agreed. This turned out to be an incredibly transformative experience for me.

I was expected to teach a course on Japanese cinema during the spring semester, so I spent the summer and fall reading recent issues of about half a dozen different Cinema Studies journals from cover to cover. There are a number of excellent independent theaters in Philadelphia (and Tokyo), so I’d watched a lot of movies during grad school. I was excited about movies, and I was excited about Cinema Studies. I was also high off the experience of having finished my dissertation, so I ended up being very productive and writing a handful of essays about horror movies, which I sent to the specific journals whose articles and general editorial voices inspired me.

Everything I wrote was rejected without even going to peer review. Because the editors felt no need to be anonymous, they told me exactly why they rejected my work, and I knew exactly who they were.

Basically, I am gay and I love monsters, and I was looking at horror films from the perspectives of Queer Studies, which was a major focus of my dissertation, and Disability Studies, which was just starting to emerge as a discipline at the time. What one older straight white man after another told me was that, while my essays were well-written and skillfully argued, I lacked the “critical distance” necessary to engage in serious scholarship in Cinema Studies. Also, because I was writing about East Asian cinema, DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the racism I encountered. (I’m especially looking at you, British academics.)

I should have pushed back or tried to reach out to other female and female-identified scholars who wrote about East Asian cinema, but what I ended up doing was crying. I cried kind of a lot, actually. I cried and watched movies and wrote a bunch of horror haiku, which eventually became these two zines.

When Quimby’s agreed to put my zines on the shelves of their store, it gave me the courage I needed to keep writing. It’s not that my work wasn’t worth being read; it’s that I was trying to get it past the wrong gatekeepers. Once I realized that a smug rejection from some narrow-minded older white man didn’t mean that there was something wrong with my writing or scholarship, I started submitting to different venues and, thankfully, getting my work published.

Zines have historically served as a platform for minority voices that have been denied expression in mainstream and more traditional venues, and that’s how they worked for me. Honestly, Quimby’s Bookstore probably saved my academic career. Be gay! Make zines!!

Both of these zines have long since sold out, but you can still find my old horror haiku (here).

My Mother’s Cats

My first zine, which I put together in the spring of 2014, was made with a single sheet of copy paper and a construction paper cover. It had eight pages with simple illustrations of my mother’s cats.

My mother has (and has always had) twenty cats. When I went home for Christmas in 2013, I took pictures of them in an attempt to learn their names. I wasn’t successful, but the photos turned out to be useful references.

This was a fun zine, but I don’t think I’ll make any more of them. I no longer have access to a photocopy machine, and using scissors and a glue stick to create the cover by hand doesn’t seem as exciting and creative to me now as it did five years ago.

I’m thinking of making another zine with actual photographs, though. Caring for twenty cats may seem extreme, but my mother is very good at it. All of her cats are gorgeous, and they’re very photogenic.

Why I Buy Books on Amazon

Amazon is evil, and I’m afraid of them. So why do I still use their stupid website to buy books? Let me give you six reasons.

First, I read a lot of scholarship. Since it’s easy to get distracted while reading an academic book, I find it more productive to read paper copies than digital editions. I highlight text and take notes in the margins, so library books are out of the question. Bookstores don’t keep academic books in stock, and I’m not about to order them for full price (which is often more than $100) from the publishers.

Second, I read a lot of literary fiction in translation. I’m not trying to sound cool, because I don’t think literary fiction in translation is ever going to be cool, but I enjoy reading the sort of books that you can only find if you can search for them by means of an aggregate of hundreds of independent storefronts.

Third, I read a lot of fiction and graphic novels that haven’t been translated, and Amazon ships internationally for cheap. In fact, buying a book shipped via DHL Global Express from Amazon Japan or Amazon France is often cheaper than buying the translation at an American bookstore. True story!

Fourth, I read a lot of garbage, and I mean A LOT of garbage.

Let me give you an example. I love the manga series Black Butler, but I do not want to walk into an actual bookstore and ask an actual human being to special order the latest volume for me. In fact, I don’t even want the latest volume to be physically in my apartment, which is why I buy the Kindle editions. I also read a lot of Kindle singles, some of which are so bizarre that they’re probably intended to be performance art. Like most performance art, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding. Can you imagine yourself going into an independent bookstore and asking, “Hi, I was wondering where you keep your chapbooks of short experimental fiction. I’m looking for I Got Pounded in the Butt by a T-Rex, could you tell me if you have it in stock?” I guessing that you don’t need any help imagining the look on the face of the English major at the till, which brings me to my next point…

Fifth, I tend to dislike independent bookstores. Don’t get me started on the snobbishness of book culture, because we will be here all day and all night and I still won’t have said everything I have to say about literary gatekeepers and their bullshit.

(I love independent comic book stores forever and always, but that’s another story for another day.)

Sixth, I don’t dislike big chain stores as much as I dislike independent bookstores, but they’re still awful. Let me tell you a short story to help explain why.

The other day I decided that it’s finally time for me to read Pride and Prejudice, so I went to a Barnes and Noble in the suburbs. The entire store was very cringe, with lots of Harry Potter and ghostwritten politician “autobiographies” everywhere. But fuck me, I’m very cringe myself, so I went straight to the super discount shelves to check out those giant glossy books about “How to Make Your Own Healing Crystals” or whatever. I was carefully studying the covers of all the garbage books no one else wanted, and I was about to pick up one of those “witchcraft in a box” packages when a store employee came up to me. She was a super cheerful teenager with bouncy blonde curls, and she asked if she could help me find anything.

I did not in fact need for her to help me figure out where Jane Austen is in their fiction section, but I couldn’t help imagining the awkward conversation we’d have if I requested that she take me there. She would ask if I’ve read the book, and I would have to tell her I haven’t. The reason I’ve never been able to get more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice is because Jane Austen has always struck me as a mean girl, and I don’t like the way she makes fun of Elizabeth Bennet’s mom. I’m not sure how I would explain this to the rosy-cheeked teenager, who might respond by repeating some nonsense about the book that she read on Tumblr – where there happens to be a lot of angry and impassioned Jane Austen discourse, if you can believe it.

While this awful conversation was flashing through my mind, I realized that the girl was probably ordered to approach me by one of her supervisors, who saw me concentrating intently on something no sane person would actually buy and was therefore worried that I was a shoplifter. I then got a ridiculous mental image of myself sneaking out of the store with a giant “Witchcraft for Dummies Starter Kit with Bonus Crystals” box under my shirt, which would honestly be only slightly less embarrassing than taking it up to the cash register to pay a whole $8.99 to another teenager who would have to keep a straight face while asking me if I wanted to sign up for a store card.

What I mean to say is that this girl surprised me, and I ended up replying to her offer of assistance by saying “no.” Not “no, thank you” or “no, I’m good,” or “no, but I’ll find you if I need anything.” I just said “no” and walked away. Even though it was a little rude of her to interrupt me, this dick move instantly turned me into the bad guy, because what sort of douchenozzle treats retail workers like that? I felt like such an asshole, especially when they didn’t have Pride and Prejudice on the self with the rest of the Jane Austen books and I was too embarrassed to ask where it was.

And that’s why I don’t like going into bookstores, thank you for joining me on this journey.

In conclusion, I love books, and it makes me happy to support writers and publishers, but I’m also a weird little gremlin who probably shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. Amazon enables the full extent of my reading habit without being judgmental, and that’s why they get all my money even though they’re evil.