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Bias: You’re Using It Wrong

I just remembered that I wrote this for the incoming composition students at the University of The Bahamas. (The faculty puts together a booklet of articles/resources for the comp classes.) It came out of not only what I saw as an overuse of the word, but also the tendency to use “bias” to shut down arguments completely. It reminds me of how “fake news” is used to dismiss conversations and points to what seems to be a growing problem of not talking to each other but at each other. 

You have probably been taught that you should not start an essay with a dictionary definition. This is correct, but there are exceptions to every rule. And in this case, my entire essay is about the definition of the word bias. Therefore, I would like to start with the Merriam Webster definition of the word, which is “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” The dictionary then gives prejudice as a synonym for the word. This definition is important because in our contemporary usage the second part of this definition is often overlooked. Bias has come to mean that the writer has an argument or a point of view. You might have been asked to critique an essay or argument in class and have come to the conclusion, “This essay is biased.” This is not what bias is. In order to explain the proper usage of the word, I would like to emphasize the interconnected parts of the definition; bias relates to having a viewpoint on the issue, but it is not merely to take a position on a subject. It means that you have a position that might be based on personal thoughts and understandings but isn’t based on facts. Instead your “outlook” might be a result of “unreasoned judgment.” Bias, then, is not just when an article that you are reading in class has a particular slant or angle. The use of the word should be reserved for an argument whose judgment is clouded because the author is unwilling to look at the other sides of the matter. It is imperative to understand these differences because this knowledge will allow you to be as precise as possible in your language choices.

Now, this might sound like a pedantic argument. You might even be thinking that everyone basically knows what I mean when I say the word bias, so why should I care? The first argument against this kind of thinking is the one I just made above: you do not want to ballpark your language choices. Words have specific definitions, and you want to use them as accurately as possible. However, if you are not convinced by the argument that you are simply doing it wrong—we mix up disinterested and uninterested all the time and our planet survives—I have another argument to make. This argument is that we use the term biased, so we do not have to engage with ideas that the article or author is putting forth. Calling something biased has a way of shutting out debate. We think that if something is biased then it is not worth engaging with. This is a dangerous tendency both in and outside of the classroom.

In the classroom, your lecturers want you to think about other people’s ideas on a deep level. This means you cannot dismiss arguments out of hand. Instead of shutting down ideas by calling them biased, you should be trying to engage with them and think about the nuances of the arguments. What do you specifically agree with, and what do you specifically find contrary to your perspective? On how deep of a level can you interact with the text? For example, do you find a point in paragraph three particularly convincing but think the author gets sidetracked later in the essay? When your lecturers ask you to analyze an argument, this is how focused they want your analysis to be, and this is the kind of analysis that declaring something biased avoids.

The argument here about nuance is not just one that applies to academic situations. We also have terribly superficial arguments in everyday life. If you have ever been told, “because I said so,” you are familiar with the level of discourse in many of the arguments we have on a regular basis. Saying “because I said so” is not the same thing as calling someone’s work biased, but it comes from the same desire—to stop the conversation, to win by refusing to engage. This does us a disservice because we don’t get to have complicated conversations. We say, “yes, no, I told you so” and move on. The lack of depth in conversation changes our society. If you cannot talk about complicated issues, how are you going to fully participate in civil society? How can you justify your vote? Your support of a law? A decision about your career or your personal life? The use of bias is just a symptom of a larger problem. You need to be able to justify your positions and your arguments without simply dismissing other people’s point of view.

That the word biased gets thrown around without clear understanding of its meaning is not just my pet peeve. This is demonstrated by an article that the activist and writer, Shaun King, felt the need to write on the issue. In fact, King devoted an entire essay in his New York Daily News column to the discussion of being biased. It is clear that the genesis for this column was people routinely describing him using that term. King writes about progressive issues, has been very vocal about racism in the United States, and is actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. An easy argument to make against King is that he only writes from one perspective and is, therefore, biased. One might expect for King to argue that he is not biased in this essay; however, instead of refuting that he is, he takes up the word to show why he makes the arguments that he does. King writes, “I want to be very clear here—I am biased” and then follows that up by explaining how he derives his perspective. He argues in part, “Every single word I write is informed by where I come from, the joyful highs and painful lows of my past…the community I care about and my very personal hopes and dreams for this crazy world we all call home.” King goes on to examine other instances of pain and injustice that he has seen and experienced and how they relate to his point of view. His argument is that his past informs his perspective, which is why he is not worried about being called biased. King is making a deliberate rhetorical move in this essay. He is taking a word that people use against him and reclaiming it. He is turning the argument on its head to emphasize that his positions come from his own experience.

While I appreciate the rhetorical work that King is doing in his column, I will still assert that having a perspective and supporting that perspective with quality evidence is not biased at all but rather the bedrock of argument. I wish that King didn’t have to write this essay because the rest of us understood that only being dismissive is cheap argument that indicates more about your willingness to consider a point of view than it does about the actual claims being made. However, that he does have to make this argument points to my issue with our use of the word. Critics say that King is biased as a way of not having to deal with or critically examine his arguments. Bias acts as a defense mechanism, which allows people to offer surface-level critiques.

What should we do with this information? I am not trying to tell you that you can never use the word. What I do want you to do is when you have the urge to say that a piece of writing or an argument is biased really think about the word you are about to use. Do you think the argument is biased? Do you mean that the author or speaker is unwilling or not interested in looking at the other sides of the issue? If so, feel free to use the word. If not, think about what you are trying to say and say that.

Works Cited

“Bias.” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bias,

Accessed 10 May 2017.

King, Shaun. “I’ll Never Make Anyone Guess Where I Stand on an Issue.” New York Daily

      News, 7 Dec. 2016,  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-guess-stand-

issue-article-1.2902085.

Questions:

  • What was your relationship to the word biased before reading this article? How does (or does not) the essay change your understanding of the word?
  • The author discusses using a dictionary definition to start an essay. Even though she says it is a cliché, she still uses it. Brainstorm at least two other ways that she could have begun this essay.
  • What is the writer’s tone in this piece? Do you feel that the tone helps or hinders the message?
  • Is there a word or phrase that you hear people use that you wish they didn’t (either because they are misusing it or because you don’t find it to be fitting for what is being described)? If so, explain what you would say to someone to convince them to use the word/phrase differently.
  • What have you learned about academic argument so far in this course or in your other college courses? How does your knowledge about academic argument help you understand this piece?
  • Describe a recent discussion or argument you had with your friends or family. What kinds of arguments were made? How did people successfully get their point across? How could the discussion have gone better?
  • The author calls King’s use of the word bias a rhetorical move. What does she mean by this?
  • Will you change your use of the word biased after reading this piece? Explain why or why not.
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Emily Dickinson, South Winds Jostle Them—, and Cashmere: Attempting Connection Through Nature

Here is a link to a short article, “Emily Dickinson, SOUTH WINDS JOSTLE THEM—, and Cashmere: Attempting Connection Through Nature,” I recently had published by The Explicator (this hyperlink should provide access to the full article): 

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/KRIMbnKhYH9nSz6zqxCh/full

The essay is a close reading of the Emily Dickinson poem, “South Winds Jostle Them-,” and explores how Dickinson uses elements of nature to connect her local New England spaces with foreign places. I’ve also written a bit about this here.

I’m happy for this piece to see the light of day right now for two reasons:

  1. It was part of a longer article that I never really figured out. I might return to it someday, but for now, it feels nice to present a bit of it to the world and leave the rest to rest.
  2. Boy, this has been rough week and a half. I, like many people, are trying to figure out how to be active in our new political climate. My mom said to me that everyone needs to use their power to fight in their own ways. What is my power? Well, it is writing. However, it can feel like the kind of writing I do is not immediate enough. I’m not a reporter, and I’m not Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m still figuring out what this all means to me as a scholar, but in the meantime, imagining connection across spaces isn’t a bad place to start. If Dickinson’s little butterflies have the strength to commune with the world, surely I can imagine, and work toward, an America that is less awful not because people have been forced to be quiet about their beliefs but because connection and knowledge have changed people.

Failure: What is it Good For?

I wrote this for the first year composition students at my university, and of course, like most things, I also wrote this for myself. I would be interested in hearing how other people embrace failure in the classroom. 

My friend wanted to teach me how to play chess. When I resisted, she accused me of only wanting to do things I was already good at. I, of course, denied this accusation, but it rang a little too close to home. I felt a bit tentative about the steep learning curve ahead of me, and I was nervous about looking stupid while I fumbled to even remember the names of the chess pieces. I was afraid of feeling inadequate; I was afraid of failure.

I imagine that if not the specific circumstances then the general feeling will be familiar to many readers. Most of us have been taught to fear failure. Failure is scary because it makes us vulnerable. It shows our weaknesses. Sometimes you try really hard and it doesn’t work and that can feel embarrassing, disappointing, and frustrating. The problem with staying in this mindset is that if we don’t learn to fail, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow. This is where the importance of failure lies. It makes us push ourselves beyond the situations we feel comfortable in, which leads us to new abilities and new opportunities that we could not imagine in our complacency.

It is especially necessary to fail in the classroom because as Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick write in their essay on the topic “failure is intertwined with learning.” It is the application of more effort and sometimes new knowledge to previous failures that pushes achievement forward. Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics, notes that he encourages his students to fail in classroom activities since, “By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: ‘Why was that wrong?’ By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed.” If everything is easy, there is no learning to be had. It can be difficult to admit that you were wrong, but acknowledging it provides the first opportunity to grow.

How do these ideas about failure in the classroom generally apply specifically to your experience in the composition classroom? Below, I am going to highlight some ways that we can fail in the writing classroom. Now, before we get started failing, it is important to note what kind of failure I am advocating for. I am not suggesting that you don’t turn your assignments in or stop coming to class. That is not the kind of failure I am discussing. That failure is taking yourself completely out of the game. I am talking about asking questions you genuinely don’t know the answer to, trying really hard and not succeeding, putting yourself out there and risking saying the wrong answer.

Here are two ways we can use failure to advance our thinking in the writing classroom. Can you apply these ideas to your own writing? Can you think of additional ways that failure could be used in the classroom?

Failure in writing assignments:

  • The truth is that writing is almost entirely about failure. If we believe that writing is a process (and we do), what we are really saying is that to get to a finished product you need to make mistakes, muck things up, and then keep going. It is only because of these first tries that we get to a finished product that says the things we want to say. For one of your papers, keep track of every draft you write, whether handwritten or typed. Keep your notes and your scribbles. Print out the finished product and edit it again before you turn it in—keep this edited copy too. After you have turned the final product in, collect all of the drafts you have written and take a look at your process. What did you successfully change? What sections of your paper needed more attention during your writing process? What did you never quite get right even though you worked hard on it? Write a short reflection about the process of writing that paper focusing not only on what went right but also what went wrong. Where did you struggle? What was difficult? And what can you learn from those places in your writing?
  • One of the assignments you will asked to complete this semester is a revision of a previous assignment. Many students want to revise the assignment that was the easiest for them or that they liked the most. Instead of picking an assignment you feel contented with, pick an assignment that you struggled with. When you make revisions on this assignments, spend time thinking about not only how to revise the assignment in terms of the things you want to add or expand but also think about the places you feel the most uncomfortable with in the essay. Make a list of the parts of the essay that you have no idea how to fix or that seem particularly daunting to revise. For each of those parts, think of three ways you could revise or change them. Make a list of all of these different potential revisions. Then pick one of them as the place to start your revision. You don’t have to do all of these revisions. In fact, that would be impossible. The goal here is to not avoid the complex changes you could make but to identify them and start there rather than with simple or easy changes.

Failure is good for a lot in the classroom; in fact, understanding and learning from failure is one of the main keys to classroom success. Learning how to be strategic about failure now will also help you in future endeavors. In 2011, The Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to failure and discussed failure with leading business executives. A former CEO of Proctor & Gamble was interviewed about the role of failure in his career, and he explained the need to harness failure. He said to the interviewer, “It’s not enough to take responsibility for your failures. It’s important to create a culture that turns failures into learning and leads to continual improvement” (Dillon). How can you help create that culture of failure in your school life and your own environs? How will you fail successfully now to help you succeed in the future.

Works Cited

Burger, Edward. “Teaching to Fail.” Inside Higher Ed. 21 August 2012. Web. 15 April 2016.

Croxall, Brian and Quinn Warwick. “Failure.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts,

            Models, and Experiments. MLA Commons. Web. 20 April 2016.

Dillon, Karen. “I Think of My Failures as Gifts.” The Failure Issue. Harvard Business Review.

            April 2011. Web. 7 May 2016.

Additional Classroom Exercises:
Failure in the daily classroom:

  • When your lecturer asks the class a question, be the first person to raise your hand and take a stab at the answer. Do this especially if you are feeling the urge to whisper the answer under your breath instead of saying it out loud to the class. You might fail here; in other words, you might get the answer wrong or you might not eloquently explain what you are trying to say, but you will have the chance to speak up and say what you mean and even in failure, finding your voice is success.
  • Academic reading can sometimes be difficult. Often when people don’t understand a reading assignment, they give up on making any meaning out of it. Just like in writing though, reading is a process, and it is necessary to read complex material in order to become a better reader. Instead of giving up on a hard read, highlight places where the reading was difficult to understand. Where did you fail to comprehend the reading? Bring the reading with “failure” highlights with you to the classroom. Working in groups of three to four take turns discussing the portions of the reading that you found difficult. What meaning can you make together? How can you understand the reading using the support of each other? How does your understanding of the reading change when you discuss the difficulties with the group?

Failure in writing exercises:

  • Describe an object in the classroom in a paragraph using only sentence fragments. Try not to write a grammatically correct sentence at all in the paragraph. After writing the paragraph, read it to yourself and then read it out loud to the class or a partner. How does it sound to you? What parts are awkward? What is hard to understand? Are there sections where your meaning is clear? Write a short reflection in your notebook about the process of “failing” to write grammatically correct sentences. What did you learn about your own writing? How did the process help you understand the sentences you write on a regular basis? What was surprising or especially interesting about the experience?
  • In the beginning of the semester, with a group of students or a partner, spend ten minutes brainstorming how you could fail in the daily classroom setting. Make a list of all the different ways you could fail: getting the answer to a question wrong, misunderstanding the reading, not paying attention to your lecturer and missing something important. Have one group member keep the list and revisit it a month into the semester. Read over the list and see if any of those failures happened to you in the past month in any of your classes. Pick out one to write about and spend ten minutes exploring the failure and what you did or did not learn from it. The point here is not to judge yourself or feel bad about what you did or did not do. You want to use the opportunity to assess the situation and find concrete ways to grow from it.

How Ralph Waldo Emerson Explained Cleveland Fandom to Me

I am from Pittsburgh, where we win a lot at professional sports, most recently only a few weeks ago.

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This is from the last time, but you get the idea.

I knew that my friends from Cleveland, on the other hand, were long suffering sports fans. I have relatives in Cleveland, went to undergrad in Ohio, and then lived in Columbus, so I thought I had a glimpse into the Cleveland psyche, but when my friends reacted to the recents Cavs  win, I realized I had no idea what they had been feeling.

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The depth and level of their reaction surprised me because it was not that they were experiencing joy but that they were being profoundly moved. They went into the wilderness searching for answers but unlike Goodman Brown, they had an episode that renewed their faith.

One of my Facebook friends described what she was feeling as transcendent, which made me realize that the win might be most clearly explained with Emerson and his transparent eyeball.

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Emerson writes about the transparent eyeball in “Nature,” and it is one of his most famous passages. While transparent eyeball is not the most elegant of phrases, it perfectly encapsulates how Emerson was feeling. He describes walking through nature and the moment when he takes flight through his relationship to the natural world. When Emerson truly experiences nature, he is on an entirely different plane of existence. This is what he describes as being the “transparent eye-ball.”  Emerson becomes one with nature and humanity and God by moving his spirit out of his body into the larger universe. Emerson does not completely vanish because although he is “nothing,” he still “see[s] all.” He is present enough to capture the moment, yet he has transcended the moment.

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via Wikipedia

I know people from Pittsburgh and lots of other places get really, really, really excited about sports, but this Cleveland win seemed different to me. So tell me Cleveland fans, did you feel like an eyeball?

A Few Thoughts on Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light

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Haigh’s new release

Oil, coal, natural gas. Western Pennsylvania is no stranger to having its resources exploited for money. In fact, the earth in the region has been plundered for centuries in the name of industry, in the name of progress. In Heat & Light, Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel she looks at the newest land use development in western PA—fracking. Of course, fracking is not only occurring in this region (and the scenes in the novel radiate out from the locale to places as far away as California and Texas), but as Haigh knows, the people she writes about in the fictional Bakerton have a long history of living off, struggling with, and resigning themselves to their environments. Haigh highlights this at the end of the novel when she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”

Each person in the novel is connected to the town or the gas drilling industry. The novel follows a multitude of characters from the men who work on the drilling to the scientist whose work is funded by the industry to the stay-at-home mom whose ill child is drinking contaminated water. Before the reader can get too comfortable with any one story, the narrative focus switches to a new person in the community who has been affected by fracking. This structure could potentially be a weakness; I found myself often wanting to stay with characters who left the scene quickly. However, the threads of the individual’s stories are not dropped. They are weaved into the other characters’ lives, even when we flash back to the characters’ childhoods or their afterlives. The structure is fractured in a way that reminds the reader of the cracks in the earth caused by the drilling for natural gas. Everything is connected but all of the characters’ ties to each other are a little broken too.

Many of the characters in the book believe that fracking could save or destroy their town and their individual lives. But what Haigh shows the reader is not only dramatic change in the noises, machines, and people the new industry brings, but also the stasis that can revolve around many people’s existences despite the changes taking place. The novel ends with Rich Devlin, a prison security guard who sold his mineral rights with the hope of making enough money to farm his family’s land, realizing that his dreams will never come true and that even with all of the commotion of the gas drilling he is in a similar place—if not worse off—than when this all started. The book ends with the line, “We are all sailors,” which might make one think that the lesson here is that life is fundamentally an adventure. However, a paragraph before the reader is told what Devlin took from his time in the Navy. He was taught “his place in the world, his basic and inescapable smallness.” To be a sailor then is to be aware of your smallness. Haigh does not critique our narrow lives. Rather she takes an opportunity to turn attention to places and people who find that very often there is little light shone their way.

Carrie Furnaces, Still Mills, and a Baby Goat

 

Last summer, I went to Carrie Furnaces with my dad and my grandmother. The above images are from the beginning of the tour.  My grandmother is in her 90s, and she co-opted the tour a few times telling us about when she worked in the office of a mill in Swissville. One of the other tour participants worked in the mills shortly before they closed, so he told us some first hand stories also about what it was like to work in a furnace.

I also found out that my grandfather actually worked at Carrie Furnaces. It is amazing the things you never know; I guess because you have to ask those specific questions. My grandfather was a stationary engineer and worked in the mills for about forty years.

My dad grew up in North Braddock, and my grandmother wanted him to work in the mills too–because what else would you do? My father had the prescience to turn away from the mills and attend college and then graduate school. That decision changed the course of his life and paved the way for an economic stability that he would not have had had he followed the traditional path to the mills, which were collapsing in the years immediately before and after my brother and I were born.

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I was paying good attention on the tour, but a year out I cannot remember exactly the details of everything we saw in the steel mill. (Carrie Furnaces were actually producing iron, but it is hard not to call it a steel mill, or a still mill, if you will.) What I mostly remember is the sheer scale of the equipment. I felt awed by the scale of the machines and the power they represented. The furnace seemed like a force of life that was not exactly god-like but demanded its own creation-based respect.

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I  mean, look at that thing. I was born in 1984, so I don’t remember this Pittsburgh. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it was like to work in an environment where you were in danger of dying on a very regular basis. Standing in front of this furnace, I try to feel the heat. I try to picture the molten iron emerging from the furnace, but it is all to remote to really capture. I know there are still many dangerous jobs like these mill positions to be had, but as someone who has mostly performed intellectual labor this kind of work is very foreign to me.

Yet, it also seems very intrinsic to who I am. The mill provided a connection to a long line of my ancestors who were mill workers, carpenters, and various other kinds of laborers.  While I wear a lot of skirts and sandals and have never owned steel-toed boots, I am a hard worker and can be rather tenacious. There are little flints of steel inside of me that tell me to persevere. Looking at the slanted light in the mill, I can imagine that I got that endurance from the workers in my family who came before me and had to be resilient every single day of their lives just to make it through the day–just to do the jobs they had to do.

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If you are a Pittsburgher, and you haven’t been to Carrie Furnaces you should go and maybe take family members who will tell you surprising facts about their lives before you were born. “Grandma, why did your father leave Scotland?” I asked. “Well, his father died of the black lung and…” Yeah, why did no one tell me this before?

Finally, on a different note, there also were goats chomping the weeds. And baby goats are really, really cute.

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Mini-Post on Amelia Morris’ Bon Appetempt

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I picked up Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris because of a Year in Reading post by Tess Malone on The Millions. I don’t actually know why I decided to look that book up rather than the other ones in Malone’s post. It could have been when Malone described the book as being about “owning up to your own failures” but honestly, I think it might have been the pretty cover. Regardless, I was pleased to read that Morris had grown up in western Pennsylvania. When you come from a place that doesn’t feel like it is represented in print that much, it is pleasant just to be familiar with the places discussed. Although we both went to high school in suburban Pittsburgh and I think are pretty similar in age, our upbringings and our relationships to our families don’t have that much in common. I related more (not that a book has to be relatable) to her desire as an adult to be creative and have concrete evidence of her creative endeavors. She explains how she started her blog, the titular Bon Appetempt, to show “the inherent ridiculousness of the faux perfection found in food magazines.” But she also started the blog as a way to have a designated and structured space to write and show evidence of her writing. She writes about sending out a draft of a novel and waiting to hear from agents. Morris says, “All summer long, my life had the potential to change, just like that.” But her life was already changing, because she was steadily working on her writing in the form of Bon Appetempt. What I found appealing about her description of her writing is a variation on “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but Morris gets the reader to that feeling much more eloquently than that cliche can.

The Spaces of Gentrification and August Wilson

 

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ECU Archives via Eat That, Read This

As Pittsburgh is officially anointed a cool place, new residents, new construction, and new revitalization projects begin to dot the landscape. Many of these changes are thrilling for Pittsburghers and citizens across the region. However, not all of these changes are positive and the negative impacts are shouldered by specific neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. When reading and thinking about these changes in the city, I have turned to August Wilson’s texts which can help us understand the consequences of disenfranchising neighborhoods by showing the impacts marginalization has on individuals in specific communities.

Much of the current discussion about changes in the city centers on East Liberty. As the Post-Gazette has reported for a few years, the real estate costs in East Liberty and surrounding areas are increasing. These higher costs are associated with the movement of tech companies, like Google, into the area. In 2015, the Black Homes Matter booklet documented the effects this has had on residents pushed out of East Liberty. Former resident Aaron Vire says that his family moved to Millville for affordable housing. Now, he laments, “I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job, and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I work 48 hours at one job, 32 at the other. I get very little sleep. And I miss my neighborhood.” Other residents being forced out of the area include those living in Penn Plaza Apartments. Like Vire, many of the residents are finding it difficult to move and stay in the same neighborhood because of the rising costs in the community.

There is growing concern that such developments will exacerbate not only income inequality but also racial segregation in the city. As Damon Young points out in a recent piece—told through his relationship with his barber—the growth in East Liberty  “coincid[ed] with a radical racial demographic shift.” When discussing the architecture of the Penn Plaza Apartments, John Conti notes that the new residents will be “almost surely be white, younger and wealthier” than the current residents.

The worries about the changing demographics of specific neighborhoods is tied to the lack of diversity in the city itself. The 2016 “Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey” provides a glimpse of the situation facing people of color. The survey found that “79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities.” Unfortunately, only “41 percent of minorities” answered in a similar way (5). The African-Americans surveyed were the “least likely to feel the region and their workplace are very diverse and to feel welcome in the community” (11). The survey results showcase issues that will be exacerbated if the city continues encouraging heedless development.

Following this news in Pittsburgh, I found myself wondering about how August Wilson would represent this time in the city’s history. Wilson so astutely noted the forces of change in the city and how those changes affected African American communities. Just as East Liberty becomes a microcosm for the current state of the city, Wilson writes about change by focusing on the small—small neighborhoods and small community networks. The larger historical forces changing the city and impacting the character’s lives are in the background of his tight focus, which is largely on areas in the Hill District.

Wilson cannot write us a new play to comment on this time in Pittsburgh’s history, but his past work can serve as a reminder of what transformation without progress looks like.

Picture1Wilson’s plays demonstrate the consequences of thoughtless change and illustrate how Pittsburgh has a history of pushing vulnerable citizens to the margins. In the stage directions for Fences, Wilson writes about the African Americans moving north during the Great Migration. He says of the reception that they found in Pittsburgh, “the city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses.” Right before this passage, Wilson describes how the city embraced the immigrants of Europe and allowed them to capitalize on the dreams that they “dared.” For African Americans in Fences, their dreams are harder to see and achieve because of the spaces the city has allowed them to exist in. The characters in Fences struggle to assert themselves in a place where they are constantly reminded of boundaries and limitations.

The idea of “fences”—what fences keep in and what they keep out—is the central throughline of the play. The main characters are building a fence to encompass their yard, but in most instances throughout the play, they are subject to fences that are not of their own making. Troy, the protagonist, started his baseball career at a late age because he spent time in prison. Troy’s wife, Rose, cannot keep him from cheating on her and cannot mend his relationship with his children no matter how hard she tries to get a fence built to box them all in. Cory, Rose and Troy’s son, is forced out of his parents’ house, and Troy makes it clear that Cory is not welcome back by placing his belongings on the other side of the fence.

Everyone in the play is trying to negotiate what occurs in their space. Space becomes a marker for what is happening in their lives. If you cannot control your own space—if you cannot take literal or figurative ownership of the space you are afforded—then you face a more precarious future.

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In Two Trains Running, set in the decade after Fences, the focus is on a small restaurant run by the character Memphis. The restaurant is the center of the action in the play. All of the characters are shaped by their interactions with each other in that small space. It is in the restaurant, for example, that Sterling, recently released from prison, reconnects with his childhood playmate, Risa. He is scarred from his time in prison, and she has scarred her legs to keep men away from her. But regardless of these scars, they share a moment of passion and connection while dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look.” This moment perfectly encapsulates Wilson’s ability to focus on the small moments while connecting them to much larger cultural currents.

Memphis’ restaurant is soon to close because of larger forces. The city plans to take over the block the restaurant is on. As the city begins buying up property on the block, West, a neighboring businessman, tries to purchase the restaurant from Memphis, but Memphis is determined to hold out and get a fair price for his restaurant. Memphis’ plans for what he will do with the money involve going back to the south from which he was forced to leave. Memphis is determined that he will go back and reclaim the land he was run off of. He says, “I’m going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain’t there, then I’m gonna see his son…I’m going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball.” After his trip to Jackson, Memphis plans to come back to Pittsburgh where he is “gonna open me up a big restaurant right down there on Centre Avenue.” Memphis’ words are hopeful, yet he also repeats “if I get back” every time he says what he is going to do “when I come back.” Memphis has a plan, knows the perilous nature of that plan, and is proceeding because he believes in what is owed him. Here, Wilson shows us resilience in the face of circumstances that give the characters few choices.

Wilson writes about African Americans who have made space for themselves as they are continually pushed into corners of the city. He wrote from personal experience of the city, and the current experiences of many in Pittsburgh echo Wilson’s sentiments. Connecting Wilson’s texts to the present conversations about gentrification illustrates how long and deep these discussions go in Pittsburgh and gives us a jumping off point to ask if we can do better. Does the city have, as Nick Coles asks, “the courage to implement equitable development”?

While Mayor Bill Peduto  gets so-so reviews on affordable housing, there has been a lot of activism and attention around these housing issues in recent months and some positive news is slowly trickling out. For instance, Diana Nelson Jones reported on nonprofit and corporate work to protect fair housing prices in Lawrenceville, Oakland, and East Liberty. If Pittsburgh is going to be a #livablecity that thrives, access to affordable housing needs to be an issue addressed now and going forward. To continue in this manner regard should be given to voices like Wilson’s. While he is writing about fictional characters, he is also writing the history of his city, and he encapsulates how devastating destruction of communities through discrimination and development can be. If we listen to Wilson, sustainable development in the city will be more of the norm and less of the exception.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Nye—Not the Science Guy

If you mention the name Bill Nye today, you are probably talking about the science guy. However, there was another exceptional Bill Nye in American history. Nineteenth-century humorist Bill Nye was celebrated in his lifetime for his humor writing and his live tours. While he is not wLaramieBoomerangLogoell-known today, he had a large impact on humor in the nineteenth century. Nye was a prolific writer and according to Bill Kesterson, “rivaled Mark Twain for preeminence among America’s literary comedians” (9). Nye was born in Maine, grew up in Wisconsin, and was most famous for his time in Laramie, Wyoming (9). Nye was the first editor of the newspaper, the Laramie Boomerang, which he named after his mule. It was his humor columns in the Boomerang that brought him to national attention as a humorist. While he was successful in Laramie, he left the harsh climate for health reasons; his health issues would continue to plague him until his death at the age of forty-five in 1896. Even though his health was unreliable, he still maintained his status as a distinguished and popular writer over the course of his lifetime and was also celebrated for his lecture tours with James Whitcomb Riley.

There are a lot of reasons to be interested in Bill Nye, but one of the aspects of his writing that strikes me is the way that he included his audience in the construction of his quips and jokes. This is also why his humor works so well today; many of the jokes in his columns are not specifically topical but are about language and how skillfully he plays with language. In newspaper columns in the Pittsburg Dispatch that I have studied in my work, Nye does not treat his audience as if they are distant from him. He includes his audience in his understanding of writing and shows them how he plays with language to entertain them. In specific columns, Nye uses literary language and draws attention to his own act of writing in order to acknowledge that he and his readers share a common culture of reading and writing.

Nye relates to his readers by discussing the work of writing his columns and drawing attention to his own writing. When Nye makes fun of his own literary endeavors or calls attention to the act of writing, he is including his audience in his authorial experience and validating their participation in the same print culture that he is a part of. Nye does this by repeatedly gesturing toward his own act of writing and making jokes about language to let his readers understand his writing process. He gives his readers access to the way his writing works and provides them information about how and why he decides to write what he does. On a trip to Niagara Falls, he writes, “I went there thinking that if the falls really deserved scathing I would scathe them through the press and inquire their business, but I must say. . . they deserve their great success” (“Nye Nigh to Niagara”). Nye refers to his own acts of writing about the reputation of the falls not only to make a joke but also to include his readers in his print culture community. He does not just write of his experiences with the falls or write about what he saw on his trip to Niagara. He explains to his readers how his column came to be and how his plans for writing were thwarted by the true beauty of the falls.

Nye calls attention to the way he uses language to construct jokes and showcases his dexterity with language to his readers. When Nye was in Niagara to see the falls, he told one of his friends that when he went there he “was going over the falls and through the whirlpool.” His friend was worried for him until Nye told him that he “meant to be figurative.” He is including his readership in this joke at his friend’s expense; this illustrates how he views his relation to his readership as being communal. He also shows connections among him and his readers by using the repetition of language. Nye writes that what people expect to find in the American west is places that are “oh! So crude, and oh! So coarse.” Instead of leaving it at that and letting “coarse” stand as a way to make fun of the west, Nye follows this statement by using the same word to apply to the east. He writes later in the article that “when you come West you lose that cool, cultivated look of refined vacuity which we of the East constantly dote on.” Westerners do not like that look in easterners because it is “real coarse.” Nye repeats the word, “coarse,” to illustrate through humor that makes fun of both the east and the west that his readership shares the word “coarse.” Nye’s language choices bring all of his readers together into a shared space of print culture.

Nye’s jokes about language and his references to his own writing might seem like they could alienate his readers because he is often showing his own skill. However, Nye was writing at a time in the late nineteenth century when print was expanding and more and more people were participating in print culture. Carl Kaestle and Janice Radway write in Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 that starting in 1880 and through 1940 “print circulated faster, more widely, and more effectively” than it had previously (535). They continue on to say that during this time “virtually anyone with an idea, point of view, aim, desire, or intention had to engage within its precincts” (535). Nye’s readers would have been participants in the developing print culture. Just as he was inviting them to experience different places with him, he was also letting them see his writing practices and letting them share his acts of writing. He used his writing to help readers understand themselves as part of a community of readers.

Nye’s work demonstrates that print culture in the nineteenth century circulated in a system where readers and writers in various places were influencing each other and influencing the products of print culture. He also showcases not only how influential now long forgotten writers have been but also why it is useful to reclaim such writers from the past.

Emily Dickinson, Flowers, and the Foreign

4184485 copyThis piece by Shelley Nituama on the EDSITEment! page at the NEH about using Emily Dickinson’s relationship to flowers to teach her poetry points out how sending and giving flowers were forms of communication for Dickinson and her peers. I have been interested in this connection formed through nature for Dickinson for a while and have specifically explored how for Dickinson elements of nature are conduits to explore foreign places.

One of my favorite examples of this idea that a piece of nature can act as a way to imagine a foreign place that one has not personally traveled is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Elizabeth Holland. Dickinson described the feeling of being in a faraway place that she achieved through the flowers she cultivated. In this letter Dickinson wrote about the foreign flowers she had in her conservatory. Dickinson wrote, “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles” (L315). She was suggesting that having access to these flowers erased the distance between her location in her Amherst home and the Spice Isles. Dickinson did not write that she felt as if or thought that she was in the Spice Isles; she was “in” the Isles.  The flowers were her main connection to this other place; she used the flowers to transcend her local environment and experience a place she could not have contact with otherwise.

Dickinson’s poem, “Between My Country—and the Others—” illustrates quite explicitly how Dickinson uses nature to imagine moving from one place to another. The poem reads in full:

Between My Country – and the Others –
There is a Sea –
But Flowers – negotiate between us –
As Ministry. (Fr 829)

The short poem moves very quickly between two disparate places—“My Country” and “the Others” (364). The sea acts as the barrier between the two places. The speaker will not be moving from “my country” to access other places. The barrier is set; however, the speaker has the advantage that the flowers will communicate between the two places for the speaker. And the flowers will not just be the receptacles of messages. They will minister; they will aid the speaker in communicating with people in the other countries. Communication from these places cannot take place without flowers to act as a channel for the stationary speaker. The speaker wants access to all of these places but will never visit them, and therefore needs to have a messenger to act as a communicator.

A further illustration of nature traveling around the world for a speaker is “As if some little Artic flower,” which shows that interpretative power provided to the poet and her speakers through nature. This poem imagines a flower from the Artic traveling around the globe:

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem –
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer –
To firmaments of sun –
To strange, bright crowds of flowers –
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in –
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom! (Fr 177)

The poem asks an important question: “What then?” about the results of the traveling flower’s journey. To describe the flower’s journey, the poem uses the conditional “if” to highlight the fact that the Artic flower cannot really travel around the world. The journey being real or not is not of consequence in face of the larger question about what it means to imagine this kind of journey. The turn at the end of the poem makes the point that the interpretation of the journey can take place regardless of if this journey could, would, or did occur.  The last two lines of the poem conclude about the imagined journey: “What then? Why nothing,/Only, your inference therefrom!” (Fr177).  The conclusion drawn from the question, “What then?,” about the significance of the flower’s travels is that the “inference therefrom” is the most important part of the flower’s journey.  In fact, without the “inference therefrom” the answer to the question of “What then?” is “nothing.” Without a person there to imagine, make sense of, and interpret the flower’s journey, the journey has no consequence. But it is not only that the person addressed has the power to interpret the flower’s journey, it is also that regardless of whether this journey is real or not it can be interpreted and that the act itself—a piece of nature traveling around the world—opens up the possibility of interpretation.

As Nituama points out nature is a great way to get students to find avenues into Dickinson. Dickinson’s use of flowers and other forms of nature also provide a means of interpreting how Dickinson thinks through her access to foreign places. The speakers in her poems do not need to take literal trips in order to explore the world. That sentiment is a powerful one for understanding Dickinson and, on a larger scale, for thinking about the interconnectedness of  places and spaces across the world.