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YouTube and Linguistic Variation Analysis

Bridget Goodman
Nazarbayev University
Astana, Kazakhstan
bridget.goodman@nu.edu.kz

The Study of Language Variation

In the field of sociolinguistics and language education, one of the key subfields is the investigation of language variation and style shifting (e.g. Jaspers, 2010). Variationists take the point of view that groups of speakers may exhibit unique phonological, lexical, or grammatical features. These patterns of mixing languages are shown to be systemic and rule-based. Continue Reading →

Editorial: Embracing Changes and Creativity in Popular Culture and Pedagogy

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The triumph of life is expressed by creation – Henri Bergson

Everyday we confront changes and find ways to adapt and thrive. In our fifth year of publication, we at Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy are entering a new phase, one where we are embracing change and adapting to better serve the growing communities interested in popular culture and pedagogy. These changes affect not only those working for Dialogue but the audiences that engage with us: you all are part of the larger Dialogue community.

Thus, before introducing this issue, we would like to let you know about three major changes you will notice. First, to allow for a quicker peer review process and publication, we are moving our publication schedules from one or two large issues a year, to publishing smaller issues three times a year. Articles are regularly indexed in Google Scholar and available on Academia.edu, making each author’s work more accessible and useful for a wide audience.

Second, in order to better promote scholarship at the intersection of popular culture and pedagogy, we are happy to introduce Musings on Pedagogy and Practice, a new blog, which will feature posts throughout the year. In these posts, we want to hear about your teaching with popular culture, how you are using popular culture texts to promote understanding, to reach your students or colleagues. How have you been challenged in your pedagogical practice? What did you expect to work but found hiccups in implementing? We want to hear the stories and your suggestions for others. While much pedagogical practice takes place within a traditional classroom, we also encourage you to write about informal learning environments or theoretical essays at the broadly defined intersection of pedagogy and practice.

Third, we have grown our editorial staff. We would like to introduce you to our growing Dialogue community including the following people:

  • Rob Galin, Copy Editor
  • Kelli Bippert, Educational Resources Editor and Co-Editor with Kurt Depner for Musings on Pedagogy and Practice
  • Karina Vado, Book Review Editor
  • Assem Amantay, Assistant Editor

In addition to the expansion of our editorial board, we have seen a tremendous growth in our number of peer reviewers, who you can find listed in the Advisory & Editorial Board. If you are not yet a reviewer, but are interested in becoming one, please reach out to us.

Just as there have been changes that have supported expanding the reach of Dialogue, we are pleased to announce the newest publication, volume 5, issue 2 in which we have brought together articles on creativity and the ways in which they bring together new approaches in concept and practice for popular culture pedagogy.

Marijel “Maggie” Melo and Antonnet Johnson present an insightful new approach to teaching technical writing for college students that supports students’ knowledges and diverse background. In their article, Melo and Johnson describe their project-based, experiential learning assignment where students developed and led the class through an “escape room.” As such, the authors deconstruct the assignment, explaining how students demonstrated “embodied learning” and collaboration, focusing on technical communication for different audiences. Then adding to new approaches, Julie Stewart, Tom Clark, and Marilyn Clark use a provocative episode of South Park to spark discussion about literary analysis. Using such an approach, they discuss how they worked to engage first generation students in visual culture and media studies.

In addition to creative new approaches within the classroom, others examined ways to work with students and teachers to teach diversity including awareness, relatability, and understanding of others. In their study, Marcos Atuna, Janis Harmon, Roxanne Henkin, Karen Wood, and Kyle Kester examine perceptions of secondary school students and future high school teachers to the Stonewall Awards, which honor literature highlighting the LGBTQ experience, and found ways to promote diversity “for developing deeper understandings of others.”

Lastly, Hannah Ianniello writes about a new perspective within literature about jazz, specifically focused on Rafi Zabor’s, The Bear Comes Home. She discusses the spectrum of views from the development of jazz as solitary, as collaborative, and as violent. Drawing on concepts of insider-outsiderness and identity, Ianniello provides new insight into the depiction of music-making.

Across these four articles, the authors have challenged us to think about teaching, learning, and creativity with new approaches. We see these articles and the newest changes at Dialogue as a step towards further embracing emerging works in popular culture and pedagogy. We hope you enjoy these articles and consider expanding your participation in the Dialogue community

Anna CohenMiller
Editor-in-Chief

 

Kurt Depner
Managing Editor

Constraining the (Im)possible: Improvisation and Violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home

Hannah Ianniello
University of Notre Dame, Sydney
Petersham, Australia
hannahi@live.com
hannah.ianniello@nd.edu.au

 

Abstract

This paper will explore the role of jazz improvisation in the characterization of the protagonist in Rafi Zabor’s 1998 jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home. I suggest that Zabor represents the process of improvisation to not only enhance the enigma of The Bear’s ability as a jazz musician, but also to enhance his capacity towards violence.

Through the exploration of the actual process of improvisation in the research of Paul Berliner, Ingrid Monson and Alyn Shipton, Improvisation in a real jazz context is collaborative and exploratory. However, Zabor, like many other authors (such as Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin and John Clellon Holmes) represent the process of improvisation as solitary, violent and explosive. Authors choose to represent this creative process as violent in order that they may use the music-making as an artistic response to dramatic events and violent occurrences in the characters’ lives.

In addition, the figure of The Bear is a metaphor for characters (or musicians) who have led violent, suppressed and hidden lives. As he skulks in the shadows and avoids the authorities, he searches for a sense of self and tries to create human connections with those who help him. Music, and improvisation, seems to be the key to his identity and yet the music-making process often injures the people he cares about most, and forces him to question the essence of his impossible being. Improvisation, then, is a tool through which Zabor suggests that violence is inherent in both the creative process and the search for identity.

Keywords: Improvisation, violence, literature, jazz, Zabor, creativity, music, performance, outsider, suppression

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The process of jazz improvisation live on stage is, at it’s best, illustrative of the process of creating something new through the breaking down and reshaping of traditional ideas. Many authors, including Rafi Zabor, Michael Ondaatje and John Clellon Holmes, choose to represent this creative act as something akin to violence, even though the reality of music-making does not, in itself, seem to be an obviously violent or destructive process<sup>1</sup>. In addition, the context of violence that surrounds these representations of improvisatory performance highlights the contrast between music and violence while simultaneously suggesting the two elements are necessarily intertwined.

Although the number of novels specifically about jazz musicians is not large, jazz and literature have been intertwined since the early days of jazz – through novels, short stories and narrative poetry. Within this relatively small field, violence is a feature that recurs in various forms. However, the relationship between jazz and violence in literature is rarely recognised. This relationship is important for two reasons: it is a reflection of the history of the development of jazz; and is also emblematic of the artistic concern with the process of creation and the destruction or reconfiguration of conventional ideas.

This paper will explore the role of jazz improvisation in the characterization of the protagonist in Rafi Zabor’s 1998 jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home. This surreal novel is is essentially the story of a talking, saxophone-playing bear in New York City, who decides he wants to become a jazz musician in order to define his identity. I suggest that Zabor represents the process of improvisation to not only enhance the enigma of The Bear’s ability as a jazz musician, but also to enhance his capacity towards violence. Zabor’s novel is by no means the only novel to explore the relationship between jazz and violence, yet nowhere is the character of the musician more explicitly represented as the violent outsider seeking his place within a modern society.

In order to examine the role of improvisation in Zabor’s novel, it is necessary to reflect upon the type of jazz the characters within the novel play: free jazz, post-bop and fusion. Paul Berliner argues that these styles go some way towards an “ideological rejection of former jazz conventions” and blend other styles of music such as rock into the idiom (122). The jazz in this novel therefore not only breaks the conventions of music from a pre-jazz era, but further challenges early forms of jazz such as New Orleans jazz, swing and even bebop.

Most significant in Zabor’s representation of the jazz musician, is the importance of improvisation. Philip Alperson argues that nearly all human activity is a form of improvisation, but that improvisation in the artistic sense is essentially “spontaneous achievement within the constraints of the possible’(274). What is compelling about Zabor’s representation, however, is that he has done away with the “constraints of the possible” altogether, by presenting the jazz musician as a representative of the impossible: a talking, saxophone playing bear.

In his study into the meaning and method behind improvisation, Thinking in Jazz, Berliner suggests that it is a misconception that improvisation is only about performing with spontaneity and intuition (2). Yet many novels about jazz do imply that musical inspiration comes from intuition alone<sup>2</sup>. This creates a romanticised vision of the jazz musician, which often suits literary representations of these characters. However, in his comprehensive study, which involved interviewing and working with many jazz musicians throughout America, Berliner argues that there is, “in fact, a lifetime of preparation and knowledge behind every idea that the improviser performs” (17). This is perhaps what Alperson means by the “constraints of the possible” in his definition of improvisation: the limitations of the instrument itself and the performer’s skills will provide the boundary for the performance.

Yet, if Zabor’s musician himself is impossible, then surely there are no constraints on the music. The Bear’s jazz, because of its very unfeasibility, has the potential to have an impact in a way that no other musician has ever been able. Because he is a bear, he moves outside of the constraints of our human world – and so does his music. This renders him the ultimate artist: unrestricted, except by his own mind. Yet, still the question remains, why does Zabor represent him as a jazz musician? And perhaps more importantly, what is it about improvisation that is so important to this novel?

Like the majority of subjects in novels about jazz musicians, The Bear is a front-line player<sup>3</sup>. This means he is most often the leader of the band he performs with, and not only has the opportunity to express his individuality through the music, but does so by standing at the front of the stage. This is no coincidence. The role that improvisation plays in jazz provides Zabor with the means to give his bear a new form of communication, and The Bear is placed in the front of the band so that what he plays is presented with as much power as possible. In addition, his physical position of facing the audience opens a direct line of communication and allows for maximum impact. As Ingrid Monson argues:

When a musician successfully reaches a discerning audience, moves its members to applaud or shout praises, raises the energy to dramatic proportions, and leaves a sonorous memory that lingers long after, he or she has moved beyond technical competence, beyond the chord changes and into the realm of “saying something.” (1-2)

The idea of communication is crucial to Monson’s somewhat romantic description of improvisation. Yet, the concept of “saying something” also highlights the importance of adding meaning to the music, as she suggests the act of communication through the music is made significant through “the reciprocal and multi-layered relationships among sound, social settings, and cultural politics that affect the meaning of jazz improvisation’(2 my emphasis). In his complex study of when and how music has meaning, Lawrence Kramer describes music as “the art of collapsing distances” (3). This highlights that it is not only jazz and improvisation that act as forms of musical communication, but that all music has the ability to do so.

Yet it is the immediacy of the act of improvisation – composing on the spot – that makes the sense of communication in jazz more vibrant than in other forms of music. Indeed, numerous recent empirical studies into the state of jazz performances highlight how important this live composition is to audiences, as Burland and Pitts posit:

Spontaneity and uncertainty offer a sense of excitement as does the immediacy of the event: the sense that the music is being formed “in the moment” and that the audience is part of that process resonates with research on jazz musicians and audiences. (527)<sup>4</sup>

Monson’s concept of “saying something” through improvisation is also a reminder that an important part of the jazz performance process is collaboration. The improvising soloist relies on the support of his or her band for the establishment of the melody, harmony and rhythm, and on their complicity in the act of creation. A common metaphor used by musicians to describe what it is like to improvise in a jazz context is that of a conversation. Yet Berliner has a more comprehensive metaphor for a jazz performance: that of a journey, where the musicians

must take in the immediate inventions around them while leading their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They constantly interpret one another’s ideas, anticipating them on the basis of the music’s predetermined harmonic events. (348)

In addition to this complex collaborative journey, the act of improvisation provides an interesting narrative context for these characters. An episode of improvisation is also a public display of something incredibly intimate: the moment of creation. As Alperson suggests, improvisation is interesting to audiences and readers alike because “we are actually witnessing the shaping activity of the improviser. It is as if we the audience gain privileged access to the performer’s mind at the moment of creation” (274). Improvisation then, is the act of creating music in a public or live setting, through the combination of technical skill, musical knowledge, personal history, collaborative intuition and emotion.

The concept of improvisation is substantial enough to be the subject of numerous books and much critical material (cf.Alperson; Berliner; Carvalho; Kamoche and Cunha; Lespinasse; Monson; Szekely; Dean and Smith), and it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper to cover all nuances of the form completely.

What is interesting about the representation of improvisation in literature, is that fact that author’s often take this process of creation and render it violent. The music itself even becomes a kind of victim of violence. Where the music is cut up, reconfigured and broken down through the process of improvisation, violence is represented as an element of the music-making process. Of course, it is possible to see this fragmentation and reassembly as simply a creative process that is neither violent nor destructive. For instance, in his description of jazz composition, Paul Berliner describes the process of altering a melody through improvisation as follows:

Pursuing subtle courses, musicians carry over the inflections and ornaments of particular phrases to embellish other phrases. Venturing further, they may extract a figure’s salient characteristic, such as melodic shape or rhythmic configuration, and treat it as the rudiment for new figures. (146)

Berliner’s attempt at a realistic description of the process of improvisation is focused on the embellishment, extraction and treatment of a melody. However, I argue that the language Zabor uses to describe this process is quite different because of its suggestion of violence. It is the representation of the creative process that is of concern here, not how that process is achieved in real life. For instance, in contrast to Berliner’s description, Zabor describes his fictional character improvising with a very different emphasis:

First thing he did was start dismantling the tune. He played a series of violent lower-register honks, then some angry, disordered runs that violated the cadence at the end of the chorus. And there went the tempo: the rhythm section was forced to break ranks and stutter … the Bear applied more pressure, the time splintered like boxwood. (45)

Zabor’s Bear dismantles, disorders, violates, and splinters time and his fellow musicians have to “break ranks.” While improvisation in jazz is not necessarily a violent or destructive process in reality, Zabor’s extract highlights how improvisation can lend itself to being described as such. Zabor represents the same process as that which Berliner describes, yet Zabor has chosen to foreground the potential violence of the act, and in doing so he focuses the reader’s attention on The Bear’s aggression and determination in the scene. This suggests that there is an inherent violence in The Bear’s music-making process. Just as a painter may cut up or rip an image to reassemble into a collage<sup>5</sup>, a jazz musician may break a melody or harmony apart to make something new. How an author chooses to describe this act is what determines whether it is viewed as violence or not. When an author does represent the music as violent, the music often becomes a reflection of the character’s psychological state.

One of the most interesting psychological elements of The Bear Comes Home is that, when considering The Bear’s mental state, it can also be read as a complex exploration of the relationship between racial identity and jazz. The ongoing social, scientific and authoritarian persecution of The Bear leads to a personal existential crisis and The Bear uses his music to respond to his victimisation.

The late 1990s was a very different time for jazz and racial identity compared to many earlier jazz novels such as Herbert Simmons’ Man Walking on Eggshells and Ann Petry’s The Street. The US Civil Rights movement ended in 1968 with several Civil Rights Acts being passed between 1964 and 1968. The most contemporary racial conflict to the novel were the 1992 race riots, instigated by the police beating of African-American man, Rodney King, in Los Angeles. Significantly, at around the same time the United States became involved in the Persian Gulf War, which went some way to shifting the focus of racial discrimination in the US towards Iraqis, and to reducing the perception of African-Americans as the “other” (Sidanius and Liu 685).

By the time of Zabor’s writing, jazz, having arguably reached its peak of popularity in the 1940s, was no longer the sound that represented popular tastes. In a recent study into the current state of jazz gigs, audience members agreed that “jazz venues should be small and intimate” so that listeners can “immerse themselves in the experience” (Burland and Pitts 527). Burland and Pitts’ study also argues that current audience members are “knowledgeable about jazz repertoire” and therefore attend performances with specific expectations about what they will hear (523). This suggests that these audience members are unlike the large dance audiences of the 1930s and are more educated and critical. In addition, as Brand, Sloboda, Saul and Hathaway argue, jazz has been suffering “a noted decline in the prevalence of attendance at concerts particularly … in North America and Europe over the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century” (635-6).

Thus jazz was almost seen as cult music by the late 1990s, existing largely in the underground scene of small bars with an air of exclusivity. Zabor draws on this underground world as a perfect setting for the arrival of The Bear who slips in and out of small dark clubs, avoiding too many questions because these are places where unusual characters are accepted.

As The Bear dons his hat and trench coat to step into jazz clubs and meet his idols, he also has to try and stay under the radar to avoid the police and the scientists who would like to study him. It is in this climate of hiding, suspicion and the need to play music that The Bear tries to find out who he really is and how he can exist within the human world. I argue that Zabor uses The Bear’s continual search for his place in society through his music as a metaphor for the desire to have one’s racial identity accepted.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, The Bear has been working with his best friend, a human called Jones, as an “act” – he is a street performer who is led by his master to do human-like things, such as dance, drink beer and playfully wrestle with Jones. When he is performing on the street, The Bear hides his true identity and pretends to be enslaved:

When Jones led him home toward evening, The Bear’s walk rolled him shoulder to shoulder, his head swayed genial and empty, his face was vacant and his eyes were glazed … The Bear knew how to behave in company. (Zabor 9)

However, when The Bear arrives home, he relaxes, takes the chain out of his nose and puts his feet up to have a beer (10). When he is outside his home, he is performing and adhering to stereotypes of what people think a bear living in a metropolis should be. He performs the appearance of slavery, of dependence and disciplined behaviour. Yet he is not happy. This performance is something he desperately wants to shed. After one encouraging experience performing jazz with Lester Bowie, The Bear finds he is no longer able to keep up the performance of slavery, feeling as though he is about to “slip away”: “Time and the city were pounding him to a powder, and something weaker was fighting for life in his heart” (Zabor 32). He chooses to drop the act and takes the ring from his nose and bleeds all over the back of a taxi. The rest of the novel leaves him searching for a way he can be defined now that he is no longer simply a dancing bear.

The Bear, as an animal trying to exist in the human world, is a symbol of the outsider, or the other, but is also a symbol of violence. In this case, Zabor continually makes us aware of his animal status by never giving him a name and always referring to him as “The Bear.” In addition, The Bear is always willing to show his teeth to get his way, and we are reminded that his huge form cannot be disguised. Jerome Stueart posits that The Bear is, however, not bear enough and is “like a man in a bear suit”(198), arguing that we are only really made aware of his difference through the awkward sex scenes, as he fears hurting his human girlfriend, Iris, in the process of penetration. I argue that it is not only in the sex scenes, but also in the musical scenes that we are made aware of his “bearishness.” He bares his teeth at the audience, terrifying them with his potential violence, without even meaning to:

He reared his head back to take a larger breath, and had he been aware of his audience he would have realized that the sudden sight of his open jaws – great white tearing teeth, livid purple gums and broad, slavering tongue – had made it collectively gasp and jump back a foot. (Zabor 23)

It seems at times as if The Bear is unaware of how terrifying and strange he can be – particularly once he has decided to drop the guise of being Jones slave. Yet it is after this scene described above that The Bear is able to begin to really consider where he stands in relation to the human world.

When The Bear forms his own group, his music is suggested to show traces of both bebop and free jazz. In his discussion of one of the landmark albums of the free jazz era, Coltrane’s Ascension, Alyn Shipton argues that the “collective free playing” had “power, collective passion, and primal screaming qualities” (740). While Shipton admits that free jazz can be inaccessible or difficult to understand, he suggests another way of listening to the music:

If preconceptions about harmony, melody, and swing are suspended, and the music is approached in its own terms, it becomes a series of profound, impressive and frequently uncomfortable statements. (741)

Thus while the music may be both “profound” and “uncomfortable,” it has the capacity to be heard as a collection of statements or claims. It is almost as though it is a search for a sound, experimental and explorative. Ornette Coleman, who was partly responsible for the development of free jazz, is described by an old friend, Dewey Redman, as having a “a restless, questioning mind,” which not only reflects free jazz, but the characterisation of Zabor’s The Bear (Shipton 774). Coltrane himself, who is one of The Bear’s idols, also described the music as a process of searching (cf. Shipton 759).

Indeed, The Bear often uses the music as a means of searching for answers and exploring the anomaly that is his existence. Therefore, the music becomes a tool through which he can search for himself and Zabor describes this process as somewhat destructive. The Bear breaks apart the music that he knows to make something new in an effort to understand his desire to create music. In addition, through this process, he hopes to discover something about his own identity. As he records some music, he slips into this kind of philosophising:

There was a kind of shuttered tumult in him, as if all this equivocal music were being generated by a drama taking place from behind the closed doors of a room somewhere deeper in the house of his nature than he could bodily reach … but all he could do here … was use what he knew about music and the horn to make some sense out of such [an] echo of [the] real. (173)

But by the end of the novel, as his band members sit between sets with bleeding fingers (literally) he is convinced this search for identity through his music has led to nothing but violence:

What have I done? The Bear asked himself … Violence to everyone around me, the usual price of my obtaining any kind of pleasure at all. Does making an artistic statement sufficient to the fundamental questions my existence has proposed really require this much breakage? (457)

Therefore, by the conclusion, he has not found his identity, but instead has found that his musical response to the discrimination he has faced has led him to enact both intimate and performative violence upon others. His own acts of violence are explained as being a response to his identity crisis, which he attempts to solve through music. Zabor portrays the creative process as a violent act that is influenced by, and has influence upon, the psychological state of the performer.

In addition, The Bear has no answers: The uncertainty of who he is in relation to the human world remains. If the novel is viewed as a commentary on racial identity in the late twentieth century, Zabor seems to suggest that creative collaboration is not necessarily enough to bridge the gap between different ethnicities because of the imbalance of power – physically and socially. An underlying concept here is also that creative expression through improvisation cannot define who we are as individuals and how we relate to one another.

Finally, the primary way The Bear hopes to define himself is by comparing himself to other musicians, and by being accepted by them. Musicians initially don’t take him seriously, as many are afraid to play with him or think he is just a “novelty act” (Zabor 43), reflecting the history of early black minstrel performers in America (Gioia 8). Once most musicians and audiences do accept him, however, it is as a musician and not as a bear. He is respected and even admired, embarking on a big performance opportunity at the end of the novel. Stueart argues that the reason the musicians finally accept him is not only because of his musical ability, but also because of the fact that he is a bear:

Other jazz musicians are the only ones taking him seriously, and this might stem from the fact that jazz is improvisation – working off the material you have to create something new. The Bear is an improvisation of a jazz musician, literally. A playful detour from the mainstream melody, an offbeat that still works, a harmony only heard if one modulates the right chords. The Bear, being improvisation on his own part and Zabor’s improv, fits in well with the other improvisos who play instruments with him in various gigs throughout the book. (207)

Thus, Stueart suggests that The Bear himself is a kind of improvisation, and as such, he “fits in” because of the fact that he is a bear. While I agree that there is a possibility that his fellow musicians acceptance of him does come from their willingness to accept new ideas, I would dispute Stueart’s equating of jazz improvisation with Zabor’s “improvisation” of The Bear as a character. As previously argued, one of the qualities that makes jazz improvisation so arresting is that it is immediate and live; it evolves unpredictably and is only repeated if it is recorded and can be played back. Perhaps this is the manner in which Zabor wrote the character, but it seems simplistic to equate the two so fully.

Nevertheless, as Stueart suggests, The Bear, like African-American jazz musicians before him, finds some acceptance through jazz. Ultimately, it seems to be a legitimate occupation for him, as it was for early black jazz musicians struggling to find their place in society in the early twentieth century (Sidran 31). By the end of the novel, although he has found a place where he can be accepted, The Bear remains dissatisfied: He fears the violence of his music and has an incomplete love affair with Iris, his white lover. He muses over “this lucky-in-music-unlucky-in-love routine: I won’t have it” (Zabor 473), reflecting the pattern of so many jazz musicians’ lives. His identity as a bear has finally been made redundant in his professional career, but it still has an impact on how he relates to women and perhaps the human race generally – where the human race represents the dominant race, that is, the white population of America.

Similarly, Zabor suggests musicians are capable of attacking one another through music, as The Bear responds to some unwilling collaborators by unsettling their sense of the music. Zabor portrays this attack as violence against both the music and the musicians:

As the Bear applied more pressure, the time splintered like boxwood beneath the weight of his phrasing and the home key collided smartly with two or three others, motivic fragments flying off at the edges like electrons from a critical mass about to go fission. (45)

In this way the ruptured music is represented as a weapon with which he can control his fellow musicians; he unsettles them to the point that they are forced to comply with the way he wants to play. In the context of the narrative, The Bear performs with violence in order to claim his place as a serious musician. Therefore the music becomes a means of fighting for respect, and for breaking down assumptions that he is a gimmick. It becomes the means for him to prove that he is not simply a saxophone playing Bear, but rather, an accomplished musician.

However, towards the end of the novel, when The Bear has finally established himself as a musician first, and a bear second, there is still violence in the music that he plays, and he hurts the musicians he works with – though with a different intention and outcome (457). Zabor thus explores a form of performative violence that occurs when performing music physically hurts the musicians. After The Bear takes a long solo at a gig, one musician says to him, “Next time you want to kill us use a gun, all right?” (457), suggesting he has pushed the rest of the band too far, exhausting them with his stamina. This question causes The Bear some self-doubt, unsure if he should be collaborating with humans at all: “What have I done?” (457).

The Bear does not want to hurt people, and his potential violence becomes emblematic of his personal struggle throughout the novel: How can a bear relate to humans without destroying them? He fears causing harm in his friendship with Jones, who may be incarcerated for helping him. He fears physically hurting Iris, his human lover, when they have intercourse, and finally he fears hurting his fellow musicians as they perform.

By the end of the novel, he hides himself away, disappearing into the wilderness to be alone and unable to “budge [a] brute rock with [a] bit of misremembered, half-accomplished song” (478). This line suggests that The Bear has tried to use music to change the “brute rock” of his existence and his complex relationship with humans. However, he has found that his music is not enough to actually change his world, no matter how much he would like it to have an impact. The music has enabled a dialogue between himself and human beings, but it has not actually solved the problem of his relationship with humanity – he is still a bear, and he is still stronger, bigger and more violent than a human.

The Bear’s consideration of a “misremembered, half-accomplished song” suggests that this is how he sees the jazz he plays: broken, fragmentary and perhaps unfinished. He sees his own performance ability as having not yet reached its peak, and therefore his own narrative is unfinished, and the music reflects this. His feeling that his song cannot move the physical world suggests that perhaps the meaning of the music is not enough. The music has failed to produce the bond he hoped to create, and the suggestion is that perhaps he was asking too much of the music. If examined in the context of music making as a representation of the creative process, The Bear’s position at the end of the novel suggests that if artists have an expectation that their craft will improve their life, they will be disappointed.

Zabor represents jazz and improvisation as an art form that has the capacity to transform sound into a means of manipulating both musicians and audiences physically and psychologically. The idea of breaking music down, pulling it apart and disrupting the key or time signature is used as a metaphor for the disruption of conventions in relation to identity, race and social history. Conversely, violence within the narrative also becomes a metaphorical tool through which to explore the creative process – particularly the process of improvisation. Physical or visible violence may be a metaphor for psychological disturbance or suffering, while psychological or musical violence is at times a metaphor for deeper emotional concerns within The Bear. The history of The Bear’s “slavery” and the music he makes has an impact on how the music is both performed and received by the audience. The music embodies and sometimes absorbs the violations, breakages and damage from The Bear’s life.

Improvisation, then, is a tool through which Zabor suggests that violence is inherent in both the creative process and the search for identity. He represents the music making as violence and destructive, even through the reality of improvisation may be anything but. He creates an impossible character in a possible world, enabling a representation of improvisation that stretches the constraints of reality. The result is an enigmatic, geninus musician whose violent “nature” makes him simultaneously the most creative artist and the most destructive social animal.

Endnotes

[1] Here, I refer to Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home(1998), Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter(1976) and John Clellon Holmes The Horn(1958), as a small selection of novels that make reference to many types of violence in relation to jazz. This broader study of the relationship between jazz and violence in literature was the subject of my PhD thesis, Drawn to the Slaughter: Violence in Narratives about Jazz Musicians.

[2] This can be seeing in Dorothy Baker’s 1942 novel, Young Man with a Horn, charting the life of a man driven to excess by his commitment to his music, and Herbert Simmons” 1962 novel Man Walking on Eggshells, which also explores addiction and intuitive musical ability.

[3] Front line players in novels, primarily play trumpet or saxophone. One significant exception is the character of Rufus Scott in James Baldwin’s Another Country, who is a drummer.

[4] Other empirical studies that emphasise the importance of live performance and improvisation include (Brand et al.; Doffman; Macdonald and Wilson). Yet it is important to note that the results of studies such as these may be affected by how audiences believe they shouldrespond both to the music and toquestions posed by researchers.

[5] Such as in the work of Pablo Picasso or Kurt Schwitters.

Works Cited

Alperson, Philip. “A Topography of Improvisation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.3 (2010): 273-79.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Eds. Bohlman, Philip V. and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1994.

Brand, Gail, et al. “The Reciprocal Relationship between Jazz Musicians and Audiences in Live Performances: A Pilot Qualitative Study.” Psychology of Music 40.5 (2012): 634-51.

Burland, Karen, and Stephanie Pitts. “Rules and Expectations of Jazz Gigs.” Social Semiotics 22.5 (2012): 523-43.

Carvalho, John M. “Repetition and Self-Realization in Jazz Improvisation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.3 (2010): 285-90.

Dean, Roger, and Hazel Smith. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. Performing Arts Studies. Ed. Bodman, Christopher. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic 1997.

Doffman, Mark. “Jammin’ an Ending: Creativity, Knowledge, and Conduct among Jazz Musicians.” Twentieth-Century Music 8.2 (2012): 203-25.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kamoche, Ken, and Miguel Pina e Cunha. “Minimal Structures: From Jazz Improvisation to Product Innovation.” Organization Studies 22.5 (2001): 733.

Kramer, Lawrence. Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Lespinasse, Patricia G. “The Jazz Text: Wild Women, Improvisation, and Power in 20th Century Jazz Literature.” Columbia University, 2011.

Macdonald, Raymond, and Graeme Wilson. “Musical Identities of Professional Jazz Musicians: A Focus Group Investigation.” Psychology of Music 33.4 (2005): 395-417.

Monson, Ingrid. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. London: Continuum, 2001.

Sidanius, Jim, and James H. Liu. “The Gulf War and the Rodney King Beating: Implications of the General Conservatism and Social Dominance Perspectives.” Journal of Social Psychology 132.6 (1992): 685-700.

Sidran, Ben. Black Talk. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Stueart, Jerome. “Portrait of the Artist as a Bear: Jazz, Nietzsche, and the Animal Mask.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 40 (2007): 197-213.

Szekely, Michael David. “Thresholds: Jazz, Improvisation, Heterogeneity, and Politics in Postmodernity.” Jazz Perspectives 2.1 (2008): 29-50.

Zabor, Rafi. The Bear Comes Home. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.

 

Author Bio

Dr. Hannah Ianniello is an early-career academic and writer from Sydney, Australia. Graduating from her PhD in 2014, her research is based around the relationship between literature and music. She has delivered numerous seminars at the University of Western Sydney and University of Notre Dame Australia, and has had a research paper published with Peter Lang. In addition to her academic work, she is a novelist, poet and screenwriter and has won the 2013 West Field Screenwriting Award for a short film she wrote in collaboration with her husband.

Reference Citation

APA
Ianniello, H. (2018). Constraining the (im)possible: Improvisation and violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/constraining-the-impossible-improvisation-and-violence-in-rafi-zabors-the-bear-comes-home/

MLA
Ianniello, Hannah. Constraining the (Im)possible: Improvisation and Violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol. 5, no. 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/constraining-the-impossible-improvisation-and-violence-in-rafi-zabors-the-bear-comes-home/

The Stonewall Books: LGBTQ-Themed Young Adult Novels as Semiotic Beacons

Marcos Antuna
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA
aldebaran57599@gmail.com

Janis Harmon
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA
janis.harmon@utsa.edu

Roxanne Henkin
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA
roxanne.henkin@utsa.edu

Karen Wood
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
kdwood@uncc.edu

Kyle Kester
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
kylekester33@gmail.com

Abstract

In a society where the LGBTQ community continues to feel the stings of prejudice and discrimination, a straightforward means of conveying accurate information about LGBTQ student lives is urgently needed. The Stonewall Awards, an annual literary prize for “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience” (American Library Association, 2016), has the potential to serve as an appropriate semiotic beacon for both the acceptance of LGBTQ students as well as LGBTQ self-affirmation. This study investigated the perceptions of secondary school students and future high school teachers toward two Stonewall Award-winning novels. The findings revealed obvious similarities as well as critical differences across reader group perceptions in regard to character actions and reactions to the issues confronting them. The realism (authenticity) and relatability evident in the young adult books used in the study hold implications for serving as fruitful guides for developing deeper understandings of others.

Keywords: LGBTQ studies, young adult literature, Stonewall Awards, semiotics, realism, relatability, intersectionality

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Now is a critical time in the perception of LGBTQ students in schools. With the accelerating advent of gay marriage across the globe, young adults can feel more appreciated as full members of their respective polities. Nevertheless, pejorative campaigns against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals in other civic matters make the case for significant prejudice and discrimination against the LGBTQ community (Kosciw et al., 2012). For today’s LGBTQ young adults, this era of change, with all its whirlwind potential for civil rights victory, defeat, and many hazy outcomes in between, is no less frightening than earlier days. Scholars are generally in agreement that LGBTQ-themed young adult literature can serve to diminish the insecurity and fear which LGBTQ students feel in such a troubled world (Blackburn & Buckley, 2005; Blackburn & Clark, 2011; Cart & Jenkins, 2006; Gallo, 2004; Moje & MuQaribu, 2003; Reese, 1998; Vetter, 2010). Many studies have already been conducted on the interactions between LGBTQ-themed literature, reader personal characteristics, and LGBTQ well-being or inclusion (Hoffman, 1993); as well as on the interactions between LGBTQ-themed literature, the school environment, and LGBTQ well-being or inclusion (Friend, 1993; Crocco, 2001; Kosciw et al., 2012). However, in spite of several attempts to broadly characterize LGBTQ-themed young adult literature (Clark & Blackburn, 2014; Bach, 2015; Blackburn, Smith, & Nemeth, 2015; Hermann-Wilmarth & Ryan, 2015), we could find little scholarship which concerned itself explicitly with mechanisms for the streamlined dissemination of valuable ideas from these texts. Because young adult novels have the capacity to educate young adults about important social issues (Wolk, 2009), it is important to determine if and to what degree the same is true for LGBTQ-themed young adult novels. All students, teachers, and administrators could benefit from the identification of those features which best convey to new audiences the positive ideas to be found in LGBTQ-themed literature.

Specifically, we contend that literary prizes such as the Stonewall Awards have the potential for effective semiosis on a large societal scale. James English describes literary prizes as “the single best instrument for negotiating between cultural and economic, cultural and social, or cultural and political capital” (10). Andrew Ford draws attention to the opposition even in antiquity between the social popularity of literary prize winners and the elite critical opinion of the same (2002). While this may bode poorly for literary prizes which seek to assess the ‘artistic merit’ of a work, it suggests a greater utility for those literary prizes that wish to establish a firm connection with societal concerns. As such, the recipients of the Stonewall Awards could be of chief import to a community in dire need of positive perception and public relations. To our knowledge, however, there has been very little investigation of the correlation between LGBTQ youth concerns and the content of Stonewall Award-winning young adult novels. Likewise, there do not appear to be any peer-reviewed evaluations of pre-service teacher responses to novels that purport to express aspects of LGBTQ life. Our research therefore focuses on the perceptions of two Stonewall Award-winning books among pre-service teachers and teenaged youth; these populations can provide valuable input on the utility of both this prize and LGBTQ-themed young adult literature in general.

Theoretical Perspective

Given our interest in determining if these Stonewall Award-winning novels can “bridge the gap” between LGBTQ populations and sexual majoritarian populations, we choose a framework that purposely cuts across critical difference; evidence of this difference may arise through the course of our research, but we are not making the assumption that it will inherently characterize the events and characters of these novels. As such, special attention should be paid to established conduits of meaning-making, conduits with strong literary and filmic traditions. Bicchieri (2006) has very simply described norms as the grammar of social interactions. Queer frameworks are important and helpful in many regards, but we feel that the identification requires a multifarious approach, at least one part of which must take into account the semiotic paradigms encouraging (or not) connections between communities.

We believe that a semiotic – or Peircean representative – approach holds the potential to shed further insights into what can make LGBTQ-themed young adult literature useful in sharing lived LGBTQ truths with a wider audience. The Peircean sign, with its constituent parts of representamen, object, and interpretant, provides the ideal framework to investigate the perceptions of interested readers of LGBTQ-themed young adult literature. According to this framework, a “sign” is a complex of meaning-making relationships (Atkin, 2010). Atkin said that the representamen refers to that part of the sign which is most salient for meaning-making, while the object refers to that part of the sign which constrains the scope of meaning-making. The interpretant is an understanding of the sign which the viewer perceives (Atkin). Peirce elaborated upon the interpretant further, describing immediate, dynamical, and final versions of these (1998). The immediate interpretant is that meaning which was intended to reside in the sign, while the dynamical interpretant refers to the initial reaction of the observer to the sign (Peirce). The final interpretant refers to a cognized/analytical reaction of the observer to the sign. Our survey questions attempt to connect this framework with the readers’ experiences of the novels.

This Peircean semiotic framework offers complex hermeneutic and discursive markers, markers which other frameworks do not always necessarily affirm or accept. Chiasson (2002) argues that this framework is helpful in conceiving of educational experiences as both analyzable and interpretable, while also recognizing the potential for meaning-making to be both a solitary and a group process (Smith, 2005). We agree that “signs are relational entities” (Stables and Semetsky, 2014, p. 3); as such, we believe that a semiotic perspective remembers both similarity and difference across experience and meaning-making, thus providing further key insights into this field of research.

Indeed, the evolution and parameters of the Stonewall Book Awards process evinces the desire of its founders to serve as a “relational entity” between the LGBTQ community and the world-at-large. Although founded in the 1970s, 2010 saw the Stonewall Book Awards inaugurate a young adult-oriented division (Sanders and Mathis, 2012). The growth in the award considerations – from handfuls of books to over 800 in 1995 (Sanders and Mathis) – strengthens the claim that the Stonewall Books are representative of a broad range of LGBTQ experiences. Likewise, Sanders and Mathis wrote that the commitment to gender parity, regional parity, and racial/ethnic parity during judge selection may create more opportunities for semiosis across groups. The authors noted that the selection of judges from as many different library types as possible reveals an awareness of audience accessibility; the award is evidently designed to take readership trends and needs into account.

For these reasons, we felt that the Stonewall Book Awards might act as a proxy for both LGBTQ lived concerns and a bid for accessibility of these concerns to as many populations as possible. This is what it means to us to serve as a ‘semiotic beacon’; if the novels are seen as both veridical to LGBTQ youth and effective in conveying key LGBTQ-oriented concepts to non-LGBTQ individuals, they are Peircean signs valuable for pedagogical purposes. Thus, if we can determine more carefully its reception amongst LGBTQ youth and pre-service teachers, we may shed light on whether the concerns in these books are legitimate. We may also better characterize just how pre-service teachers experience LGBTQ-oriented narratives. The semiotic frameworks experienced and constructed through these texts can help determine the utility of the Stonewall Book Awards – as well as consciously constructed LGBTQ media – towards the acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ students.

Methodology

In this qualitative study, we used a constant-comparative analysis (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) to examine the responses of our participants to two young adult books that recently received the Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. While we would have enjoyed having the resources to investigate responses to all the award-winning books since 2011, we felt that employing at least two novels could provide substantive, meaningful data. Because the aforementioned criteria for selection do not change from year to year, we saw less harm in choosing two books for what we hope will be a preliminary exploration amongst many equality and progress-oriented researchers. While we cannot generalize to all LGBTQ award-winning novels from our findings, we believe that they will provide much-needed insights for future investigation.

The two books were Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Saénz, 2012) – hereby abbreviated as just Aristotle and Dante – and Fat Angie (Charlton-Trujillo, 2013). We chose these books because they were similar in some important respects – recently published, close in length, and with significant romantic elements – while different in others – taking place in different environments and eras, with protagonists identifying as either questioning/lesbian (Fat Angie) or questioning/gay (Aristotle and Dante). In Fat Angie, the eponymous protagonist wrestled and ultimately accepted her love for her friend K.C. Romance. Throughout the novel, Angie bonded with her neighbor Jake, dealt with the demands of her mother and brother, experienced bullying at the hands of Stacy Ann, and dearly missed her military-serving sister. In Aristotle and Dante, the two eponymous Mexican-American characters lived through events with their families and at their schools, slowly coming to the mutual realization that they were in love.

Participants 

The researchers, who were from two different states, applied stratified purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990), to select different groups who may find interest in the books and which could perhaps lead to comparisons in responses to the books, especially in light of the age difference of adolescents and preservice teachers. As a result, the participants for this study composed three different groups. One group was comprised of ten undergraduate students majoring in education. While not enrolled in any particular course, these preservice teachers volunteered to read both books. Members of an LGBTQ group, not associated with any school, formed the second group of volunteer participants. All the participants were LGBTQ youth, as befit the mission statement of the Texas LGBTQ youth group these teenagers attended: “The mission of [the youth group] is to provide a safe, non-judgmental, affirming place for LBGTQ young people to express and explore who they are through education, peer-support, advocacy and friendship” (Anonymous, 2016). The youth, all between the ages of 12 and 18, had a month to read the novels. Nine youth read Aristotle and Dante and four read Fat Angie. The last group of participants consisted of members of a ninth-grade English class in a high school located in a state along the East Coast. As part of a literature unit, the students could select which book they wanted to read. Fourteen selected Aristotle and Dante and seven read Fat Angie. These students were not required to read these books, but were simply given an opportunity to do so.

Data Collection and Analysis

All participants completed an online questionnaire consisting of eleven questions. The questions focused on several aspects of the readings, some of which addressed initial impressions, authenticity of the book, and relatability to the characters and events. Because we are interested in documenting and analyzing perceptions to discrete semiotic phenomena, we chose to use each individual response as our unit of analysis and not the collected responses of each participant. To that end, we often refer to ‘responses’ instead of ‘participants’ during our elaboration of the results and subsequent discussion.

There were 110 units of analysis each for Aristotle and Dante and Fat Angie for the pre-service teachers. The LGBTQ youth supplied 99 units of analysis for Aristotle and Dante, and 44 units of analysis for Fat Angie. The participants in the English class, in turn, supplied 168 units of analysis for Aristotle and Dante, and 84 units of analysis for Fat Angie. Then, using a constant comparative approach (Mertens, 2015), we analyzed the data in three phases.

Phase 1. In this initial phase, which involved the development of a coding system to form an analytic framework, we worked together examining the second question responses to establish a pattern for initial coding. We then individually read through one group’s responses and began generating these initial codes. After coding the responses for one group, we came together again to compare our codes noting similarities and differences. We then discussed the differences at length and arrived at consensus. We followed this same pattern for the other two groups of participants.

Phase 2. At this point, we individually examined the agreed upon initial codes and engaged in more focused coding efforts resulting in the development of salient categorical themes for each participant group (Charmaz, 2006). We then came together to discuss the categories for that particular group and negotiated the final categories. The same process was used for the other two groups.

Phase 3. In this final phase, we examined these emerging themes across groups noting similarities and differences in their responses. At this point, we discussed at length the meaning of each category or theme and the use of appropriate language to clearly represent the category. For example, with Fat Angie, we determined that references to Angie’s sister, Angie’s mother, Angie’s brother, and K.C.’s father could be condensed into a ‘family relationships’ category. Likewise, with Aristotle and Dante, we decided that references across groups to personal growth and self-development could be condensed into a ‘bildungsroman’ category.

Results and Discussion

We have chosen to present the responses in five categories. First are the similarities across books and groups, and then differences across the books, across ages, across sexual orientations and gender identities, and other subgroups.

Similarities Across Books and Groups

All groups found the events and characters of Aristotle and Dante relatable. One response revealed that “I was able to connect with each character written! The authors craft made every character relatable,” while another stated that “I can definitely relate to trying to find yourself in the world; I can relate to trying to find out who you are.” Many readers expressed an appreciation of the author as an engineer of characterization. They never lost sight of the fictional nature of the text, and therefore approved strongly of what they felt were attempts to engage them. The semiosis of mimicry factored into this appreciation; the characters were described well enough in their expressions and growth to allow the readers enjoy the novel.

One response shared the following about the novel’s relatability:

There were many things I connected to with Dante and Ari. Even though I am not a boy who likes boys, I have felt the strangeness in not thinking quite the same as my peers, having a family member incarcerated, and feeling out of place racially. These connections really drew me in to the characters.

As signs crafted by the author, Ari and Dante achieved a balance of more LGBTQ-oriented experiences and experiences common to other groups. Notably, the story retained appeal for pre-service teachers because of the latter, but not never lost sight of its LGBTQ focus – which readers of all groups positively acknowledged.

All groups revealed common semiotic touchstones in each of the novels. For the Fat Angie responses, K.C.’s purple heart tattoo made an impression (one response remarked that “the purple heart or K.C. Romance was everywhere”), while responses in Aristotle and Dante focused on the figurative potential of the novel’s birds and dreams. Dreams, for example, “gave insight to how [Aristotle] was feeling about the events of his life or what might happen in the near future”, and “were used to express Ari’s fears”. One youth contended that the dreams “confused [Aristotle] or helped him understand the things he was feeling”, while another youth stated that “Ari’s dream also represented his loneliness”. As evaluative tools for the characters (amongst themselves) and the readers (for understanding the characters), these dreams act – as with the relatability markers above – as semioses of reflective growth. Readers of all groups recognized the dreams as important messages to them, perhaps understanding the dreams to be a common cultural, and even psychological, touchstone for change; the predictive potential of counterfactual thought in general – in this case, dreams – is a key feature of all human thought (Epstude and Peetz, 2012).

Birds, on the other hand, “seemed like a metaphor for the trials Dante goes through in the book while trying to stay happy”. One response stated the following:

[The bird] symbolized both danger and hope. When Dante tried to save the bird in the middle of the road Ari jumped out to save him and got hit by a car, yet later in the book it mentions how they see birds singing and flying around being happy.

One response revealed that “Dante’s emotional response to the shooting of the bird became important to a critical element in the story”, while another shared this interpretation:

Dante tries to rescue a sparrow with a broken wing only to be nearly struck by a car before Ari saves him, and Dante says that Mexicans are “like sparrows” in a letter to Ari. Ari has dreams about sparrows falling from the sky.

Other semiotic templates for further analysis and understanding in Aristotle and Dante were perceived elements of self-discovery. Readers remarked on how the novel served as personal evolutions for both characters (and themselves), with obvious moments of wrestling with and growing through adolescent issues: “I was able to relate to [Aristotle] the most… in terms of teenaged identity confusion. There were certainly times in my life where I felt no one in my family could understand the things I was feeling.” As a semiotic marker, the developmental quality of the novel made connection with either of the LGBTQ protagonists likely: “I felt that I related more to Dante, because he actively searches to make sense of his feelings and where his life is going.” Appreciation of particularity – in this case, the lives of sexual minorities – came about through the appreciation of a semiotically multifarious “coming of age.”

Differences Across the Two Novels

The receptions and analyses of Aristotle and Dante differed substantially from Fat Angie in one respect: both youth and pre-service teachers nearly unilaterally stated a desire to recommend Aristotle and Dante to others. This response was similar in both passion and sense of urgency to recommend as many others we read:

I actually called my sisters and told them to buy it immediately after finishing it. It was so well-done. It would be a shame not to share it.

I would recommend this book, it had become one of my top favorite books. The book gives a detail filled setting and plot.

Yes, Yes, Yes! A thousand times yes. It was the first really good LGBT book that I have read and it really focuses on the teenage struggle.

Yes, because I believe in this book alone helped me change my opinion about homosexuality by showing the viewpoint of their mind.

Time and again, readers revealed an admiration for the craft within Aristotle and Dante. The philosopher W.V.O. Quine once spoke of a “web of belief” (1970), or the propensity for belief in one arena to be positively or negatively impacted by the belief in another arena. The author’s carefully delineated semioses are, to the readers, consistent with each other, which lends credence and relatability to the characters and their struggles.

While there were several responses expressing a desire to recommend Fat Angie, over a quarter either expressed misgivings about recommending – “not really, I found it very odd,” “I would, however it wouldn’t be at the top of the list” – or refused to do so: “No, because although it was a quick read, certain parts felt rushed and cliché,” “I would not recommend this book. It actually left me with a bad taste.” When responses did recommend Fat Angie, though, they focused on a perceived strong sense of realism:

Yes, I believe that this book stays true to real life and is a great story. I would recommend this book to young adults as well as adults.

I would absolutely recommend this book. I was moved by the characters and their interaction. The book deals with things that everyday teens face everyday and should be brought to light.

Hearkening back to Quine’s “web of belief,” it seems likely that the web seemed shaky or ill-formed to some of the Fat Angie readers. These readers found it hard to imagine the events transpiring matter-of-factly as they were portrayed. Liao and Szabo (2016, p. 3) define as “imaginative resistance” the breakdown of authorial authority, a lack of trust in phenomenological verisimilitude, and/or aesthetic questioning of a text. The responses we chronicle here reveal that some readers experienced this phenomenon enough to linger in the memory after finishing the book.

Generational Differences

As a whole, the pre-service teachers found the events of the two novels to be more realistic and/or authentic than did both groups of youth. All of the pre-service teachers found the content of Aristotle and Dante representative of teenage interaction and experiences, with many especially so:

I was hooked by the first couple lines and I couldn’t put it down. The way the author described how his summer started was so realistic and full of sarcasm and real teenage thoughts.

It was intriguing and realistic. The characters were believable teenagers with quirky families and typical confusion.

The pre-service teachers also found Fat Angie realistic, although at least three of their responses took issue with particular details, such as the portrayal of military life or the intensity of the bullying that Angie faced. Even so, many pre-service teachers found the events of the novel to accurately reflect teenage life:

The social interactions were typical to what is expected when a student is an outcast. It is sad to say that the majority of teenagers in this society are cruel when their peers don’t fit into the norm, and this book highlights that in the interactions that “Fat Angie” has with her peers.

The bullying and taunting in this book done by both the teens and the parents was scarily accurate, in my opinion.

Meanwhile, the teenagers were more ambivalent about the realism of Fat Angie, with half of the relevant North Carolina responses (and one-fifth of the relevant Texas responses) questioning the authenticity of
the events:

I don’t think there are as many bullies in today’s society as there were portrayed in the book. However, the reactions Angie had were very realistic.

One youth stated that “the bullying wasn’t very realistic but the relationship Angie had with her mother was”, while another revealed that “even at the end of the book, I didn’t get a clear understanding of why the antagonist didn’t like Angie”. The intensity and circumstances of Angie’s mistreatment were called into question various times. What the author felt was an alignment between representamen and object seemed not to be for some youth; the high school experience as object did not match the language and events shared in the novel.

Less than half of the germane pre-service teacher responses expressed this same doubt: “I would have liked more expansion on the main character finding out that Stacy Ann did not hate her just for being fat, but that it was deeper than that”. Where the pre-service teachers differed from the youth again was in the attention, alluded to in the above quote, they paid to the characters’ health, both through discussion of body issues and mental well-being. Twice as many more pre-service teacher responses than youth responses dealt with these two particular themes:

The bodily fat references of Angie were recurrent throughout the book; her double chin, tight fitting uncomfortable clothing, sweating profusely, gasping for breath and her deprived hunger.

The action of cutting is also something that I struggled with and experienced in high school when attempting to deal with emotions and situations I felt I couldn’t handle.

Another feature wherein the pre-service teachers differed substantially from the youth was their recognition of pop cultural elements in Fat Angie. One pre-service teacher noted the “reoccurring references to songs, movies, comic books, and television shows but not all were symbolic to the storyline”. Another remarked that “the pop culture references and awkward humour serve as comedy relief for the serious situations going on in the novel”. While at least 14 pre-teacher responses referred to pop culture, none of the youth in either Texas or North Carolina commented on this aspect of the book. While the pop culture references appeared to interest and ultimately increase the credence in the “web of belief” for the pre-service teachers, this did not appear to be the case for the youth.

Differences Across Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 

Often, the commentaries of the LGBTQ Texan youth were opposed to both those of the pre-service teachers and the North Carolina youth. With Fat Angie, for example, the LGBTQ Texas youth remarked often upon the romance between the protagonist Angie and her eventual girlfriend K.C. One reader wanted the novel to “maybe have more cutesy fluffiness between K.C. and Angie? I mean it would give it that much more of a depth into how a lot of lgbt+ relationships are.” Another reader revealed that it was “honestly really nice for me being a lesbian to read this fantasy book about my kind of lifestyle, other than the normal guy and girl love stories. This felt more real to me than those ever will.”

With Aristotle and Dante, the LGBTQ youth were concerned with categorizing language, or language which labeled – whether negatively or positively – perspectives on and identities within LGBT life:

I’m extremely curious as to why someone such as the author continually used the word transvestite to describe the person Aristotle’s brother killed. Trans or transgender definitely would have been more appropriate.

I would [recommend the book], with the added comment on the trans-centered violence toward the end. All in all, it’s a good book in a queer library that too often focuses more on the sexuality than the characters and their stories.

One reader “would make Aristotle more openly transgender, and take out the mention of hate-crime towards the trans girl,” while another shared that “[the book] shows that [the] LGBT+ community is not weird or out of the ordinary, but can be very normal and assimilated to society’s norms.” Another response revealed that “my first impression was that it was very low-key queer, in a good way.”

To a much greater degree – three times as often – as for the North Carolina youth, the LGBTQ Texas youth were dubious about the realism evinced in Aristotle and Dante, with some eventually finding veracity in the events and characters and others not:

I question how realistic the parents were with their support. Yes, some parents are really supportive of their children and how they identify, but not all parents are that way. Alas, I question how both sets of parents are supportive of their sons.

I believe it was somewhat accurate. The main characters, teenage boys, displayed more maturity and foresight than most teenage boys I have encountered, but taking into consideration the different time period, it was still a believable portrayal.

It definitely didn’t represent me personally but I do love the struggles of intersectionality addressed throughout the entire book. I do however feel the interactions were very real and very human and the internal struggle Aristotle faced with coming to his own fabulously gay conclusion was definitely as complex as it should be.

The latter quote points to a striking commonality that the LGBTQ Texas youth and the pre-service teachers shared: the recognition of intersectionality. Sociologists Hill Collins and Birge define intersectionality as “an analytic tool that sheds light on the complexity of people’s lives within an equally complex social context” (2016, p.25). As a lens, intersectionality is concerned with understanding lives through “many axes [of social division] that work together and influence each other” (Birge and Collins, p. 2), as well as the “systems of power [that] intersect and coproduce one another to result in unequal material realities and the distinctive social experiences that characterise them” (Collins and Chepp, 2013, p. 60). In an intersectional framework, each ‘axis’ and/or ‘system of power’ corresponds to a social identity and/or label. While the status of Angie and K.C. as intersectionally female and lesbian are of note, we were struck by how both the LGBTQ Texas
youth and the pre-service teachers lingered on the intersectionality of an LGBTQ identity and a Mexican-American identity:

I feel like it tackles the internal turmoil any gay minority faces when they aren’t white. He somehow felt broken ethnically because of his homosexuality, as if that invalidated him. It was definitely restated over and over again that he was a half-assed Mexican.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the boys truly inhabit what Gloria Anzaldúa refers to as ‘The Borderlands’. They are not only navigating the space between their Mexican Heritage and their American Culture, they also navigate their own sexual identity. It is clear that the two borderlands which they inhabit complicate the other.

The semiotic potential of Aristotle and Dante is enhanced by its intersectionally-enabled multiplicity of identities; with greater opportunities for personalized meaning-making through identity relation, the greater chance there seemed to be for both relatability and realism. Several times reader responses take note of and remark positively upon the combination of identities in this work. Almost uniformly, readers recommend Aristotle and Dante; while the recognition of intersectionality cannot be explicitly connected with this fact, these responses do suggest that intersectionality may be a strategy in a text that successfully – and perhaps most importantly, without strong opposition – reaches across personal histories and identities to inform.

Other Notable Differences 

The North Carolina youth agreed on several occasions with the pre-service teachers in particular. Two abiding interests of just the North Carolina youth, however, were their desire to –in Fat Angie – replace Angie’s girlfriend K.C. with her male friend Jake and their desire to either downplay or disagree with the LGBTQ presence in Aristotle and Dante. One reader simply stated that they prefer “KC and Angie… just be friends and Angie and Jake would date”, while another reader connected the same thought with a stylized narrative: “I would have liked for Angie and Jake to date. It would have been your typical teenage relationship, but the cute kind that forms from long-time friends.” One youth contends that “in this day we have seen (sic) that homosexuality has become semi-popular and more accepted”; in an earlier response, the same youth states that they “don’t agree with homosexuality”, and believed that it would make the novel “weird”. Another youth reveals that they could not relate to the characters because they “don’t find the same sex attractive.”

Both the pre-service teachers and the North Carolina youth were preoccupied with the relationships of the two main characters in Fat Angie, Angie and K.C., with their families. In particular, the North Carolina youth, by a margin of 2 to 1 in relevant responses, wondered about Angie and her connection with her missing military sister. Both groups also reflected at length on Angie’s relationship with her mother. One pre-service teacher stated that “the interactions with her mother exemplified that she had no parent figure to talk to or to even protect her from the cruelty of her environment”. One pre-service teacher claims that “her mother expects ‘perfection’ and is far from perfect herself”, while another shares that they “believe her not-to-be-bothered-mother was also something that was also connected back to how Angie viewed herself”. One North Carolina youth reveals that “it was almost made out to be like their mom didn’t actually care about Wang and Angie, she only cared about how other people viewed her children and their family.”

This look at family and friendships often predicated the appeal of Fat Angie, at least for the pre-service teachers and the North Carolina youth. (The Texas LGBTQ youth responses focused more on the possibility and presence of romance – but even they recognized the family relationships in the novel, albeit to a lesser degree.) Reader responses expressed concern for Angie’s turbulent family life, evaluated Angie’s friendship with Jake, and often compared the relationships of the characters to their experiences with their own families. Pre-service teachers especially found these aspects of Fat Angie realistic and relatable; the variety in relationship types of Fat Angie drew the sustained semiotic attention of those who might choose these novels for students: namely, adults.

Conclusion

While the nation is on a trajectory of acceptance for gay and transgender youth and adults, there is still a major undercurrent of hatred present in our society. Providing literature with LGBTQ themes should not be a one-time event in a classroom (Clark & Blackburn, 2009). Instead, it should be incorporated in a thematic unit in which the semiotic markers of acceptance, compassion, and caring are the major focus (Wood, Kissel & Miller, 2016). Stonewall Award-winning works are an excellent means for approaching this focus. In this way, all marginalized youth can see themselves in the literary characters and, with teacher instruction, empathy, and assistance, the examination and discussion of this literature has the potential to help all students understand one another more completely.

The intersectionality in some LGBTQ books like Aristotle and Dante may be a productive way to introduce texts like these into the classroom. One of the participants commented that although he was not gay, he understood being different because of his race and other issues in his life. Students, both gay and straight, can see semiotic connections between parts of their lives with parts of others that they might not have realized. Intersectionality may offer us a way to talk about these issues productively. Negotiating identities, power, and relationships through the intersectionality framework may help students gain insight into themselves
and others.

Certainly, the political reality encourages classroom teachers to avoid these issues, but the data is very clear. Our LGBTQ youth desperately need these books in their high school curriculum, and they are asking for them. While our future teachers may be hesitant to use LGBTQ texts, we must create spaces in our preservice programs to help them productively integrate these books into the literacy curriculum. Teachers, if supplied with novels that accurately convey – at least to LGBTQ youth – the LGBTQ youth experience, can teach all youth how to effectively signal – or make a Peircean sign – in a way that fosters LGBTQ-safe environments. The ways in which these novels successfully appeal to and resonate with LGBTQ youth can teach faculty and student peers how to enforce a better quality of life for these youth. It is through the study of literature on the topic of diversity, in all its forms, that we have a neutral vehicle by which to create “safe zones” for our youth, where students can feel free to be who they are without fear of disdain or reproach from peers (Henkin, 2011; Ratts et al., 2013). This is a most pressing challenge for us as teacher educators – one that needs to be addressed immediately.

References

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Anonymous. (2016). A Texas LGBT youth group.

Atkin, A. (2010). Peirce’s Theory of Signs. Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/

Bach, J. (2015). Exploring Queer Pedagogies in the College-level Young Adult Literature Course. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

Bicchieri, C. (2006). The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bilge, S. & Collins, P. H. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Blackburn, M.V., & Buckley, J. F. (2005). Teaching queer-inclusive, English language arts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(3), 202-212.

Blackburn, M.V., & Clark, C. T. (2011). Analyzing talk in a long-term literature discussion group: Ways of operating within LGBT-inclusive and queer discourses. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(3), 222-248.

Blackburn, M.V., Clark, C. T., & Nemeth, E. A. (2015). Examining queer elements and ideologies in LGBT-themed literature: What queer literature can offer young adult readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 47(1), 11-48.

Cart, M., & Jenkins, C.A. (2006). The Heart has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/ Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Charlton-Trujillo, e. E. (2013). Fat Angie. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Chiasson, P. (2002). Peirce and Educational Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://www.digitalpeirce.org/text.gif.

Clark, C. T., & Blackburn, M. V. (2009). Reading LGBT-themed literature with young people: What’s possible?. English Journal, 98(4), 25-32.

Clark, C. T., & Blackburn, M. V. (2014). Scenes of violence and sex in recent award-winning LGBT-themed young adult novels and the ideologies they offer their readers. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

Collins, P. H. & Chepp, V. (2013). Intersectionality. In G. Wayla, K. Celis, J. Kantoha, & S. L. Weldon (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics (pp. 57-79). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crocco, M. S. (2001). The missing discourse about gender and sexuality in the social studies. Theory into Practice, (40)1, 65-71.

D’Angelo, F. J. (2009). The rhetoric of intertextuality. Rhetoric Review, 29(1), 31-47 English, J. (2005). The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ford, A. (2002). The Origins of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friend, R.A. (1993). Choices not closets: Heterosexism and homophobia in schools. In L. Weiss & M. Fine (Eds.), Beyond silenced voices: Class, race and gender in the United States (p. 209-235). New York: State University of New York Press.

Gallo, D. (2004). Bold books for innovative teaching: The boldest books. English Journal, 94(1), 126-130.

Gladden, R. M., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Hamburger, M. E., & Lumpkin, C. D. (2014). Bullying Surveillance among Youths: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements, Version 1.0. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US Department of Education.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies of Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Henkin, R. (September 01, 2011). Creating a Safe Zone: LGBTQ Work in NCTE. English Journal, 101, 1, 76-79.

Hermann-Wilmarth, J.M. & Ryan, C. L. (2015). Queering early childhood possibilities: Opening up possibilities with common children’s literature. International Journal of Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood, 5(2), 5-16.

Hoffman, M. (1993). Teaching “Torch Song”: Gay literature in the classroom. English Journal, 82(5), 55-58.

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Malo-Juvera, V. (2016). The effect of an LGBTQ themed literary instructional unit on adolescents’ homophobia. Study and Scrutiny: Research in Young Adult Literature, 2(1), 1-34.

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Moje, Ε. В., & MuQaribu, M. (2003). Literacy and sexual identity. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(3), 204-208.

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Peirce, C. S. (1998). The Essential Peirce. Peirce Edition Project (Eds). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ratts, M. J., Kaloper, M., McReady, C., Tighe, L., Butler, S. K., Dempsey, K., & McCullough, J. (October 01, 2013). Safe Space Programs in K-12 Schools: Creating a Visible Presence of LGBTQ Allies. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 7(4), 387-404.

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Saénz, B. A. (2012). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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Vetter, A. M. (2010). “’Cause I’m a G”: Identity work of a lesbian teen in language arts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(2), 98-108.

Wolk, S. (2009). Reading for a better world: Teaching for social responsibility with young adult literature. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(8), 664-673.

Wood, K., Kissel, B. & Miller, E. (2016). Safe Zones: Supporting LGBTQ Youth through Literature. Voices from the Middle, 23(4), 46-54.

Author Bios

Marcos de R. Antuna is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His academic interests include LGBTQ issues in pedagogy, educational philosophy, and the history of American education.

Janis M. Harmon is currently a Professor of Literacy Education and serves as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Student Success in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Practice from The Ohio State University and an M.Ed. and Educational Specialist Degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.  Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature and effective middle school and high school literacy programs with a special emphasis on vocabulary acquisition and instruction. She has written articles that have been published in such journals as Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of Literacy Research, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the Middle School Journal, the Elementary School Journal, and the National Reading Conference Yearbook. She served as co-editor for Voices from the Middle from 2006-2011.

Dr. Roxanne Henkin is a Professor Emeritus in the Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Department at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her doctorate from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Henkin’s research interests include multiliteracies and multimodal digital literacies, confronting bullying through literacy, critical literacy for social justice, writing process and instruction, and in-service staff development. She has published many articles and two books, Who’s Invited to Share: Using Literacy to Teach for Equity and Social Justice and Confronting Bullying: Literacy as a Tool for Character Education, (Heinemann.)

Dr. Henkin is President of Whole Language Umbrella. She was also the lead co-editor of the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle (2006-2011) and the Director of the San Antonio Writing Project (2006-2016). She has helped to create and teach writing projects in South Africa, India, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan.

For more information see Dr. Roxanne Henkin’s Blog (http://roxannehenkin.blogspot.com), Academia.edu (http://independent.academia.edu/RHenkin), ResearchGate (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Roxanne_Henkin), and Confronting Bullying website (https://sites.google.com/site/confrontingbullying).

Dr. Karen Wood is a Professor at the University of North Carolina atCharlotte, NC  She is the author of over 200 articles, chapters and booksrelating to literacy, diverse learners and research-based strategies forteaching and reaching all ability levels of learners.

Kyle Kester is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, pursuing a degree in Urban Literacy. She has taught high schoolEnglish in Davidson County, NC since 2005. Her interests include at-riskstudents, adolescent literacy, and educational technology.

Reference Citation

APA
Antuna, M., Harmon, J., & Henkin, R., Wood K., & Kester, K. (2018). The Stonewall Books: LGBTQ-themed young adult novels as semiotic beacons. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/the-stonewall-books-lgbtq-themed-young-adult-novels-as-semiotic-beacons/

MLA
Antuna, Marcos, Janis Harmon, Roxanne Henkin, Karen Wood, and Kyle Kester. The Stonewall Books: LGBTQ-Themed Young Adult Novels as Semiotic Beacons. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/the-stonewall-books-lgbtq-themed-young-adult-novels-as-semiotic-beacons/

APPENDIX

  1. Please state the name of the book that you have just finished reading.
  2. What were your first impressions about the book? Why?
  3. Were the interactions between characters in the book representative of the way teens/young adults that you know interact? Explain your response.
  4. Were there any motifs (recurrent imagery, symbols, or structural elements) in the book you read? If so, what were they?
  5. Were you able to personally connect with the feelings, emotions, and actions of the characters? If so, which ones, and why?
  6. What are some events in the book that you felt might be especially helpful in informing the reader about the protagonist’s struggles? Explain your response.
  7. Were there any parts of the book that you question? Explain your response.
  8. How realistic are the characters and the problems they are facing? How realistic are the reactions to the things that happen to them? Explain your responses.
  9. If you could change one thing about the book to make it more realistic, what would it be? Why?
  10. If you could change one thing about the book to make it more enjoyable, what would it be? Why?
  11. Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or why not?
  12. Would this book make a good television show or movie? Why or why not?*

Teaching Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms

Marijel (Maggie) Melo
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona, USA
marijelmelo@email.arizona.edu

Antonnet Johnson
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana, USA
antonnet@purdue.edu

Abstract

​​While many instructors recognize how the integration of popular culture and student interests can enhance student engagement and learning, this pedagogical approach remains rare in technical writing courses. In this article, we provide an end-to-end outline of an escape room project assigned to junior and senior level undergraduates, including an overview of our pedagogical rationale, institutional context, instructional materials, and synthesis of work produced by students. By collaborating on a range of technical documentation, students learn through experience that can be leveraged beyond the classroom and in their professional pursuits. Moreover, we aim to provide teachers with an example of how they might develop and support non-traditional approaches to technical writing in ways that integrate possibilities for embodied learning, experiential knowledge development, and creative, critical thinking without compromising complexity or rigor.

Keywords: Technical communication, technical writing, project-based learning, experiential learning, popular culture, escape rooms, critical pedagogy

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Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, video games and online videos have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape

their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows (Duff, 2002). Lisa Patel Stevens (2001) points out that it helps to create student engagement to use non-print materials as pedagogical artifacts as students regularly engage in dynamic
multiliteracies through their personal media choices, the content of which constitutes part of their conversations with fellow students. 

This paper demonstrates how we organize a class employing an episode from South Park,
Proper Condom Use
, (Parker & Stone, 2001) to introduce topics relevant to literary analysis as a platform for using similar frames in analyzing more complex media, in this case, classic short stories.  Specifically, it describes an early in-class exercise designed to generate class discussion in weekend and evening classes at a Midwestern college.

These classes are populated largely by diverse adult students in their late twenties or early thirties, typically parents, pursuing associate degrees on a part time basis, including many who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.  Some are enrolled in this class because it is a degree requirement, not out of a desire to read literature, which is perceived as an elite activity with little relevance to their own lives and aspirations.

Our challenge is to bridge that gap—to show students that the tools of literary analysis are accessible to them by introducing analytical literary frames in a novel way. In a sense, we begin with what Dwight McDonald (1962) would characterize as a “mass culture” artifact, an episode of South Park, as a bridge to more “high culture” short stories traditionally explored in literature classes. We especially focus demonstrating the importance of providing specific textual evidence to support arguments in analyzing short stories.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students–nearly all of whom report having seen one or more episodes of South Park, Comedy Central’s most watched show—especially popular among the 18-49 age group, confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing
students to literary analysis tools, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience. (See Hull (2003); Stewart (2007); Vasudevan (2010). This exercise takes 60 – 75 minutes to complete, including showing the 22-minute episode.

Pedagogical approach

To stimulate discussion and establish a premise for later class analysis, prior to viewing the video, we ask students to recall the content and student reactions to sex education classes offered them in junior and senior high school. We then introduce the conflict at the center of Proper Condom Use (Parker & Stone, 2001), which concerns how, when, and through what agents sex education should take place.  We tell students they will be analyzing Proper Condom Use as a literary text.  To do so,  we pause at intervals to ask them to answer questions about each segment that specifically highlight a means of examining literary texts in ways they will be using in analyzing the short stories we have assigned for subsequent analysis.

In this paper we summarize the plot of the episode, including representative dialogue, show where we stop the video, what questions we raise, and how we use this experience to prepare students for making similar analyses of the short stories they will be reading during the semester.

Visual and Aural Humor

We begin by asking students to identify visual and aural elements, the sights, sounds, colors, vocal inflections and actions (Nixon, 1999) that are key to South Park’s comedy.  In the opening scene Stan and Kyle are burning a Jennifer Lopez doll with a magnifying glass, during which Stan yells, “Scream for me bitch.” Cartman, the most controversial of the main characters, then shows them how to “milk a dog,” a technique taught to him by mischievous fifth graders.

In-class question:  Specifically describe the sensory elements—what you saw and heard–central this scene. Explain how they highlight the transgressive nature of the children’s behavior. As you watch the rest of the episode, consider how the opening scene foreshadows the children’s subsequent actions.

Parallel analysis: Read the first four paragraphs of both London’s “To Build a Fire” and Crane’s “The Open Boat” and explain how the description of colors, weather, and the environment reinforces the naturalistic themes of each story.

Character

We next introduce the concept of character, or persona, with definitions of protagonist and antagonist, which drive South Park stories.  We ask students to identify traits of their favorite character and explain the role that character typically plays, including what makes that character interesting.  We also ask whether this character is flat, displaying little change within or throughout episodes, or evolving, demonstrating growth and understanding. Students highlight that within the cartoon format of South Park characters typically remain largely flat, though they also point out that some characters admit to seeing the error of their ways at a particular episode’s end.

In-class question: With which character in Proper Condom Use do you most identify? What traits in this character’s persona make them likeable, funny, or annoying?    Describe actions and words from the episode that support your characterization.

Parallel analysis:  Describe Miss Brill’s persona at the opening of the story and contrast it with her persona at the end.  Cite specific passages that help explain the dramatic change in how she sees the world.

Themes

Experience vs. Expertise

We show subsequent scenes and ask students to analyze how elements of plot, motivation, tone, and values highlight specific themes within the episode, all of which can be identified in one or another of the short stories we analyze in subsequent classes.  For example, a major theme of South Park is parodying the reliance on expertise rather than trusting personal experience.  When Stan “milks” the dog, and when Randy and Sharon, his parents, observe his behavior, they say they will ground him for 10 months.  Yet they cannot bear to speak with Stan about sex: their notions about childhood innocence destroyed, they do not provide age-appropriate information.  Instead, they call a PTA meeting, assuming sex education at school is a “safe space” between their children, their children’s friends, and MTV–and that with comprehensive sex education, the children will subsequently engage in sexually responsible ways, and not in behaviors that lead to pregnancy and STDs.

Principal Victoria:  Okay, parents.  I know a lot of you want a chance to speak, but we have to talk one at a time.

Sharon:  Look, our kids are learning sexual things on the street and on television.  There’s no way we can stop it.  The schools have to teach them sexual education at a younger age.

Principal Victoria:  School policy has been to teach sexual education later.  In fifth grade.

Mr. Tweek:  It isn’t soon enough!

Stuart:  Yeah.  Why, just this afternoon our son was caught beating off our dog.

Chef:  Look, parents.  Do you really want your children learning about sex?  Part of the fun of being a kid is being naïve!  Let them be kids for a while.

Ms. Choksondik:  Naïve at what cost, Chef?  Parents, we have to face facts:  Children in America are having sex at younger and younger ages.  STD’s are affecting younger and younger kids all the time.  The only way we can combat that is by educating children before they have sex.

Chef:  The first thing that kids learn about sex shouldn’t be some bitch-scare tactic about STD’s.

Sheila:  No, she’s right!  With all the teen pregnancies that are out today, I think my boy does need to know about sexual education.  From the school. (Parker & Stone, 2001),

Students point out that this dialogue represents support for the view that common sense and experience lead to better decision-making than its opposite: relying on so-called experts.  The parents forfeit their traditional roles of teaching their children about sex themselves based on their knowledge of their own children’s readiness for such information and naively assume the South Park school teachers are better agents for this education.

Students volunteer that this proves to be a false assumption. Miss Choksondik, an advocate for teaching sex education to the fourth grade children whom parents may presume has been licensed by the state as an expert in the subject matters she teaches,  admits she has had little sexual experience. Chef, who represents the voice of experience and a character who has a reputation for having sex with many women, serves as a foil to this groupthink, asserting, unsuccessfully at this point in the episode, that sex education should not be taught in schools, especially to 8-10 year-old children.

In-class questions: Can you relate to the experience the South Park children have when you look back at your reactions to sex education classes you took during your elementary and secondary education? Recall a specific conversation you had with a fellow student about one of your lessons.  How did what you learned in the classroom compare with what you had learned from other sources? What were the differences?

Parallel analysis:  Explore how the theme of experience vs. expertise is developed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Why does John fail to understand the impact of his wife’s postpartum depression on her feelings, thoughts, and behavior?  How does his medical expertise inhibit his ability to come up with a more effective treatment plan? Explore the theme of experience vs. education in Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Identify the differences in how the mother and her well-educated daughter view the mother’s possessions?

Scare tactics and unintended consequences

Another theme students highlight is the ineffectiveness of fear as a way of changing behavior.  For example, when Wendy and Bebe indicate they believe the lessons will be fun, Miss Choksondick, responds with “scared straight” rhetoric.  “Fun, you think this is going to be fun! Well, let’s start with our first lesson then, shall we?  She writes SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES on the blackboard, asserting, That’s right, because unless you get boys to wear condoms you can and will get a sexually transmitted disease from them! …Gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, the list goes on and on (Parker & Stone, 2001).

This scene satirizes sex education classes.  The lessons are inappropriate for this age group:  the scare tactics about negative consequences lead to fear of sex rather than a lifelong commitment to responsible sexual behavior, the program’s stated purpose. This scene allows for a conversation on the effectiveness of fear appeals in reducing harmful behavior. Many students report having experienced similar fear appeals in high school about sex education, and about smoking, driving and texting, and drug use as well (Stewart, 2007).

A related theme is the role of unintended consequences. In her second presentation on sex education, Miss Choksondik stresses the traumas of pregnancy.

Alright girls.  Yesterday we went over the myriad of diseases you can get from boys, but today we’re going to talk about the most horrible thing they can give you of all.  Pregnancy!  That’s right, since you girls have decided to be sexually active; teen-pregnancy is at an all-time high!  You seem to think it’s gonna be fun and neat to have a baby, well let’s watch a little video shall we? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

During a video a narrator intones, “…later the contractions are happening closer together.  Mom sure is in a lot of pain.  Now we can see the crown of the baby’s head, stretching the vaginal walls in ways never before thought possible by Mom.  Finally, the miracle happens, and the baby is born.  But mom’s not done yet!  She still has some afterbirth to push out of her” (Parker & Stone, 2001).  This terrifies the girls who later run away from the boys when they meet in the cafeteria.

Students observe the children have too little relevant experience to understand the materials being shared.  Having learned about STDs and AIDS, fear replaces friendship, and their reaction is to reject the boys unless they wear condoms.

Wendy:  Stay away from me Stan!

Stan:  Why?

Wendy:  Are you wearing a condom?

Stan:  A what?!?

Girls: [all screaming loudly] AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!

Bebe:  Do any of you have your condoms on?

Kyle:  No.

Girls:  AAAAAAGGHHHHHHHH!

Wendy:  Don’t you know that without wearing a condom you could get a disease?

Kyle:  Nun. Uh.

Bebe:  yeah huh.  If you don’t wear a condom, you’re gonna get AIDS!

Wendy:  You guys have to wear condoms.  Now, please, just, just go away.  We don’t want your AIDS. (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The girls are terrified of having sex–and of boys in general. In response, the boys attempt to buy condoms at a drugstore.  While the older pharmacist is hesitant to fulfil this request, his assistant explains, “Kids are going to do what they do, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected. We just got in the new Gladiators for kids.  ‘Lil Mini’s.  They’re specially designed for kids under 10, and they’re only $5.95 for a box of fifty (Parker & Stone, 2001).” When the boys attempt to wear the condoms, Butters supplies rubber bands to make the condoms “stay on.”  He exclaims, “there isn’t nothing’ that’s getting’ in my wiener through this thing!  And it’s even got a little reservoir at the end so you can pee in it!” (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The teachers find out about the condom purchases and almost gleefully agree to start teaching sex ed. to kindergarten students–oblivious to their part in motivating the girls to fear sex and pregnancy and then insisting that the boys purchase condoms.

These scenes are used to generate conversation about experiences students have had when they believe their voices were not heard at home or in the classroom. Students point out that the children do not seek these remedies.  It is the parents who abdicate their responsibility to assess their children’s readiness to talk about sex, ask them questions about their experience, or see if the children have questions for them.

Students laugh at the unintended consequences of the sex education program: This spoof of the promotion of sex education from kindergarten through high school results in the boys and girls coming into conflict, each believing the other to be responsible for spreading disease.  They skirmish, with the girls protecting themselves behind a steel fortress and the boys, riding in battery operated cars, on the attack, using water guns to break through this defense.  In this battle, Kenny, hiding in his jacket, dies, a South Park plot convention, when struck by a boomerang. His death shows that the children are not the idealized innocents of their parents’ imaginations, another fruitful area for class discussion.

Nonetheless, while ignorant of carnal knowledge, the South Park children can be cruel and can experience fear, regret, anxiety, and especially in Kenny’s case, be subject to repeated extreme violence—and students can reflect on bullying they experienced in school and the emotional stress it created.

Similarly, some students report that like the South Park parents, their parents seemed only dimly aware their children were experiencing negative emotions.  This recognition serves as a source of the parents’ feelings of inadequacy, resulting in their histrionic outrage and grief over evidence that their children are leaving the Garden and facing uncertain and terrifying consequences which the parents cannot control.

In-class questions:  Recall how fear appeals were used in school programs about sex, drugs, tobacco, and driving?  As you remember student reactions to them, do you recall any unintended consequences, such as students mocking the presenter or the presentation?  What did they say and what was the reaction to their comments?

As a series, South Park suggests that parents don’t really understand what’s going on in their children’s lives. Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to your own school experiences, including bullying and being excluded from favored groups.

Parallel analysis:  Identify symbols in Jackson’s “The Lottery” that contribute to the imagery the story uses to develop the atmosphere of fear that builds until the story’s shocking resolution.

What are the unintended consequences of the grandmother’s actions in O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Identify text from the story that supports your analysis.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is another prominent theme of Proper Condom Use.  When Miss Choksondik and Mr. Mackey have unprotected sex, they are transgressing the lessons they promoted in the classroom. In fact, Miss Choksondick is so desperate for sexual contact, she offers Mr. Mackey a drink, strips naked, lowers her head off-screen, and is later portrayed with disheveled hair.  Students point out that his illustrates the limitation of education as a predictor of behavior:   while the teachers tell parents that sex education will lead their children to make responsible decisions, the teachers themselves fail to practice what they preach.

In-class prompts: Did you observe teachers or administrators practicing some of the actions the school discouraged in students, such as speeding or smoking? Did this affect your perception of the credibility of what was being taught?

Parallel analysisIdentify scenes in “Young Goodman Brown” where the protagonist increasingly grows disillusioned when he discovers the hypocrisy of adults he has known and trusted.

Genre

We point out that this South Park episode, a monolog, which we teach is a convention of satire and burlesque, lampoons the idea that if evil influences are not headed off early, a social apocalypse will occur—and the naive hope that experts can fix all issues children face. The monolog is delivered by Chef, the voice of experience, in which he calls for rationality and truthfulness from parents.

Chef:  Schools are teaching condom use to younger students each day.  But sex isn’t something that should be taught in textbooks and diagrams.  Sex is emotional and spiritual.  It needs to be taught by family.  I know it can be hard, parents, but if you leave it up to the schools to teach sex, you don’t know who they’re learning it from.  It could be from someone who doesn’t know, someone who has a bad opinion of it, or even a complete pervert.

Miss Choksondik:  He’s right.  I never knew how special and personal sex was until just recently.

Sharon:  This whole mess started because we couldn’t talk to our boys ourselves.

Sheila:  It’s easier just to leave it up to the school, but it’s just not a school subject.

Principal Victoria:  Then it’s decided:  no more condom classes in grade school.

Stan:  But Chef, when is the right age for us to start having sex?

Chef:  It’s very simple, children.  The right time to start having sex is…seventeen.

Kyle:  Seventeen?

Sheila:  So you mean seventeen as long as you’re in love?

Chef:  Nope, just seventeen.

Gerald:  But what if you’re not ready at seventeen?

Chef:  Seventeen!  You’re ready!

Stan:  Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

When the parents see the error of their ways, they show they can reflect on their actions and learn from experience. We point out viewers sympathize with them because they realize their behavior springs from a positive motive to protect their children from future harm, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “a comic corrective” which serves as a relief valve from the tensions of the war between the girls and boys.

Consistent with South Park’s transgressive nature, the episode ends with Cartman again “milking” the dog, indifferent to what he now knows is objectionable to the parents, as he finds it personally gratifying. Students point out this is another indication of a self-absorption and “will to power” that defines his character.

Discussion Prompt:  What purpose does the ending monologue, a convention of burlesque and of South Park, serve in this episode?

Parallel analysis:  Identify specific passages in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that reveal to the reader that the story is actually satire.

Audience Analysis 

After students have viewed the entire episode, we address the issue of audience analysis, asking students to identify what they find compelling in this episode and also how they see it appealing to other viewers (Duff, 2002).  Students identify plot elements that support differing value sets. The scriptwriters present a traditional perspective of morality—that parents, not schools, be the primary sex education teachers. Yet they mock conventional moral values by showing characters in highly degrading situations that stretch the limits of what is acceptable on television.  Chef presents a secular world view declaring the age seventeen is the right age to have sex–outside of love and marriage.  Finally, they reflect a populist perspective that implies gaining carnal knowledge from older adolescents during puberty is preferable to teaching it to elementary school children before they have the experience or physical maturity to understand its role in human society.

In-class prompt:  Why do you believe South Park resonates so strongly with a young and primarily male audience?  What plot elements and devices did you observe in Proper Condom Use that this demographic might find particularly amusing?

Parallel analysis:  Why do you believeThe Things They Carried” resonates so strongly with military combat veterans?  What plot elements and devices did you observe that this demographic might find particularly compelling? Justify your reasoning.

Conclusion

Within South Park’s ecosystem, the children remain ageless, indulging in the pleasures of childhood immaturity.  They serve as outsiders, spectators to the futility of parents and others who try to impose adult burdens on them.  Students laugh as they learn to identify specific evidence to support their analysis of the unintended consequences of the adults’ decisions and share similar stories from their own experience.

Our students report that they like this way of introducing them to basic literary concepts. They also enjoy it because it offers them the opportunity to reflect within a familiar learning space on something they have experienced in their own lives:  the use of fear appeals and worst case thinking intended to change young adult behavior–whether it be warnings about underage and unprotected sex, as in Proper Condom Use, or tobacco, alcohol and marijuana abuse as in South Park episodes Butt Out and My Future Self ‘N’ Me. In short, this exercise allows students to reflect thoughtfully as they share stories about their own school experiences with fear appeals while teachers can introduce literary concepts and how to document claims with specific evidence in an easily understood and relatable format.

Endnote

[1]  An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, January 2017.

References

Duff, P. (2002, March). Pop culture and ESL students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 482-488.

Hull, G. (Nov, 2003). At last: Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 229-233.

McDonald, Dwight. (1962). Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (NY: Random House).

Nixon, H. (1999, September 1). Adults watching children watch South Park. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12-16.

Parker, T. (Writer & Director). (2001, Season 5, Episode 7). Proper Condom Use. In T. Parker & M. Stone (Executive Producers). South Park. Comedy Partners; Comedy Central. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.

Stevens, L. (March, 2001). South Park and society. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 548-559.

Stewart, J. (2007). The Rhetoric of South Park, MA, University of Cincinnati, Dept of Communication.

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Jennifer Bateman, J. (October 2010). Rethinking composing in a digital age: Authoring literate identities through multimodal storytelling.  Written Communication, vol. 27, no.4, pp. 442-468.

Author Bios

Marijel (Maggie) Melo is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, where she taught first-year composition and technical communication. Her research centers on the rhetorics of innovation and maker culture. She also co-manages UA’s makerspace, the iSpace. She is an incoming assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Antonnet Johnson is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Purdue University, where she teaches Business Writing, Intro to Professional Writing, and Games and User Experience. She is also the Founding Director of the University of Arizona’s Usability and Play Testing Lab. Her research areas are game and play studies, rhetoric in pop culture, and professional and technical communication.

Reference Citation

APA

Melo, M., & Johnson, A (2018). Teaching Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2).
http://journaldialogue.org/v5-issue-2/teaching-technical-writing-through-designing-and-running-escape-rooms/

MLA

Melo, Marijel, and Antonnet Johnson. Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/v5-issue-2/teaching-technical-writing-through-designing-and-running-escape-rooms/

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Appendix A: Assignment Overview and Roles

Unit III: Technical Documentation to Support a User-Driven Experience

Project Overview

For this project, you will work collaboratively to research, design, construct, and run an escape room experience. An escape room is “a physical adventure game in which players are locked in a room and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit”. Part of this process entails writing and compiling the escape room’s accompanying technical documentation (detailed below). Because this project has many components, you will negotiate and select roles for each team member based on the descriptions below. If you are in a team of four instead of five, we will negotiate how to divide the responsibilities.

 

Logistics/Operations Manager
Responsibilities Deliverables
Plans and manages logistical/operational components of the escape room.Ensures safety and protection of users and space (this isn’t legal liability; it’s just being thoughtful about the implementation)Serves as operational expert in terms of developing the puzzles in accordance to the space. This means taking responsibility for materials needed and space required for the puzzles (in context of the iSpace).  Conducts and shares research on escape rooms with team (a document that synthesizes sources and information on escape rooms).Writes and delivers the introductory script/spiel to participants.Create the rules for escape room attendees (conduct, moving things, materials that are off limits, etc.)

 

 

User Experience Managers (Two per team)
Responsibilities Deliverables
Develops overarching narrative/story of the escape roomIntegrates escape room theme across deliverables (e.g., puzzles, props, video, etc.)Ensures puzzles and escape room follows a storyline trajectory (clear beginning, middle, and end)

 

Storylines, films, edits, and renders narrative video (no longer than 90 seconds in length) to be shown to participantsDevelops layout/plan of the escape room (works with logistics) and creates map of escape room with locations of puzzles and props clearly illustratedOutlines intended sensory experiences (props, music, lighting, etc.). Consider, for example, how you will bring your theme to life through these elements.

 

Deliverables Specialist
Responsibilities Deliverables
Organizes team’s documentation/deliverables (e.g. Google drive folder)Stores all documentation in a central location for team and instructor to view and accessStreamlines all documents to ensure consistency in branding and formatting

 

Writes project proposalCompiles all team documentation into a well-organized, easy-to-navigate final project portfolioCreates a technical document template and formats all documentation accordingly

Prepares team documentation (including project manager’s project summary) into a project portfolio.

 

Project Manager
Responsibilities Deliverables
Oversees team communications, meetings (agendas and notes), and deadlinesReports any problems and provides project status updatesDiscerns how to acquire props and materials (budget)

 

Writes project overview/summaryCreates meeting agendas and records meeting minutes during team meetingsRecords workflow and team assignments through a project management program (e.g. Trello, Asana, etc.)

Conducts and completes needs assessment form on behalf of their project team

Team deliverables:

Technical documentation for each puzzle (description of puzzle, solution, estimated time to solve, number of participants required to solve, associated hint(s), and any relevant visuals). Teams will be responsible for the creation of 4 – 5 puzzles.

List of materials needed from iSpace/Library for day of event. Your group is responsible for conducting research on the materials/resources offered and available.

Due: Teams will be running their escape rooms on either December 5th or 6th.

All deliverables will be submitted before 11:59 PM on 12/6.

Escape Room Table

 

 

About Musings

Musings is a new blog for Dialogue that encourages observational, experiential, and theoretical writings about popular culture and pedagogy. While we are actively seeking contributions about applications in the classroom, such as best practices in teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom, new multimodal approaches, and additional items/ideas not fitting neatly into a scholarly article, we are also open to all topics relating to popular culture. Continue Reading →

Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis 1

Julie Stewart
University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash
Blue Ash, Ohio, USA
stewajl@mail.uc.edu

Tom Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
clarkt@xavier.edu

Marilyn Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
clarkm@xavier.edu

Abstract

Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, and video games have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their personal experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows. This paper examines how Proper Condom Use, an episode of South Park, one of the most popular shows among young viewers, can be used as a springboard for in-class discussion of tools for literary analysis through an exposition of this episode’s visual and aural humor, themes, characters, audience, and genre.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing students to concepts relevant literary analysis, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience.

Keywords: Popular Culture; Visual Culture; Media Studies; South Park; Literary Analysis; First Generation Students

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Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, video games and online videos have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape
their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows (Duff, 2002). Lisa Patel Stevens (2001) points out that it helps to create student engagement to use non-print materials as pedagogical artifacts as students regularly engage in dynamic
multiliteracies through their personal media choices, the content of which constitutes part of their conversations with fellow students. 

This paper demonstrates how we organize a class employing an episode from South Park,
Proper Condom Use, (Parker & Stone, 2001) to introduce topics relevant to literary analysis as a platform for using similar frames in analyzing more complex media, in this case, classic short stories.  Specifically, it describes an early in-class exercise designed to generate class discussion in weekend and evening classes at a Midwestern college.

These classes are populated largely by diverse adult students in their late twenties or early thirties, typically parents, pursuing associate degrees on a part time basis, including many who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.  Some are enrolled in this class because it is a degree requirement, not out of a desire to read literature, which is perceived as an elite activity with little relevance to their own lives and aspirations.

Our challenge is to bridge that gap—to show students that the tools of literary analysis are accessible to them by introducing analytical literary frames in a novel way. In a sense, we begin with what Dwight McDonald (1962) would characterize as a “mass culture” artifact, an episode of South Park, as a bridge to more “high culture” short stories traditionally explored in literature classes. We especially focus demonstrating the importance of providing specific textual evidence to support arguments in analyzing short stories.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students–nearly all of whom report having seen one or more episodes of South Park, Comedy Central’s most watched show—especially popular among the 18-49 age group, confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing
students to literary analysis tools, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience. (See Hull (2003); Stewart (2007); Vasudevan (2010). This exercise takes 60 – 75 minutes to complete, including showing the 22-minute episode.

Pedagogical approach

To stimulate discussion and establish a premise for later class analysis, prior to viewing the video, we ask students to recall the content and student reactions to sex education classes offered them in junior and senior high school. We then introduce the conflict at the center of Proper Condom Use (Parker & Stone, 2001), which concerns how, when, and through what agents sex education should take place.  We tell students they will be analyzing Proper Condom Use as a literary text.  To do so,  we pause at intervals to ask them to answer questions about each segment that specifically highlight a means of examining literary texts in ways they will be using in analyzing the short stories we have assigned for subsequent analysis.

In this paper we summarize the plot of the episode, including representative dialogue, show where we stop the video, what questions we raise, and how we use this experience to prepare students for making similar analyses of the short stories they will be reading during the semester.

Visual and Aural Humor

We begin by asking students to identify visual and aural elements, the sights, sounds, colors, vocal inflections and actions (Nixon, 1999) that are key to South Park’s comedy.  In the opening scene Stan and Kyle are burning a Jennifer Lopez doll with a magnifying glass, during which Stan yells, “Scream for me bitch.” Cartman, the most controversial of the main characters, then shows them how to “milk a dog,” a technique taught to him by mischievous fifth graders.

In-class question:  Specifically describe the sensory elements—what you saw and heard–central this scene. Explain how they highlight the transgressive nature of the children’s behavior. As you watch the rest of the episode, consider how the opening scene foreshadows the children’s subsequent actions.

Parallel analysis: Read the first four paragraphs of both London’s “To Build a Fire” and Crane’s “The Open Boat” and explain how the description of colors, weather, and the environment reinforces the naturalistic themes of each story.

Character

We next introduce the concept of character, or persona, with definitions of protagonist and antagonist, which drive South Park stories.  We ask students to identify traits of their favorite character and explain the role that character typically plays, including what makes that character interesting.  We also ask whether this character is flat, displaying little change within or throughout episodes, or evolving, demonstrating growth and understanding. Students highlight that within the cartoon format of South Park characters typically remain largely flat, though they also point out that some characters admit to seeing the error of their ways at a particular episode’s end.

In-class question: With which character in Proper Condom Use do you most identify? What traits in this character’s persona make them likeable, funny, or annoying?    Describe actions and words from the episode that support your characterization.

Parallel analysis:  Describe Miss Brill’s persona at the opening of the story and contrast it with her persona at the end.  Cite specific passages that help explain the dramatic change in how she sees the world.

Themes

Experience vs. Expertise

We show subsequent scenes and ask students to analyze how elements of plot, motivation, tone, and values highlight specific themes within the episode, all of which can be identified in one or another of the short stories we analyze in subsequent classes.  For example, a major theme of South Park is parodying the reliance on expertise rather than trusting personal experience.  When Stan “milks” the dog, and when Randy and Sharon, his parents, observe his behavior, they say they will ground him for 10 months.  Yet they cannot bear to speak with Stan about sex: their notions about childhood innocence destroyed, they do not provide age-appropriate information.  Instead, they call a PTA meeting, assuming sex education at school is a “safe space” between their children, their children’s friends, and MTV–and that with comprehensive sex education, the children will subsequently engage in sexually responsible ways, and not in behaviors that lead to pregnancy and STDs.

Principal Victoria:  Okay, parents.  I know a lot of you want a chance to speak, but we have to talk one at a time.

Sharon:  Look, our kids are learning sexual things on the street and on television.  There’s no way we can stop it.  The schools have to teach them sexual education at a younger age.

Principal Victoria:  School policy has been to teach sexual education later.  In fifth grade.

Mr. Tweek:  It isn’t soon enough!

Stuart:  Yeah.  Why, just this afternoon our son was caught beating off our dog.

Chef:  Look, parents.  Do you really want your children learning about sex?  Part of the fun of being a kid is being naïve!  Let them be kids for a while.

Ms. Choksondik:  Naïve at what cost, Chef?  Parents, we have to face facts:  Children in America are having sex at younger and younger ages.  STD’s are affecting younger and younger kids all the time.  The only way we can combat that is by educating children before they have sex.

Chef:  The first thing that kids learn about sex shouldn’t be some bitch-scare tactic about STD’s.

Sheila:  No, she’s right!  With all the teen pregnancies that are out today, I think my boy does need to know about sexual education.  From the school. (Parker & Stone, 2001),

Students point out that this dialogue represents support for the view that common sense and experience lead to better decision-making than its opposite: relying on so-called experts.  The parents forfeit their traditional roles of teaching their children about sex themselves based on their knowledge of their own children’s readiness for such information and naively assume the South Park school teachers are better agents for this education.

Students volunteer that this proves to be a false assumption. Miss Choksondik, an advocate for teaching sex education to the fourth grade children whom parents may presume has been licensed by the state as an expert in the subject matters she teaches,  admits she has had little sexual experience. Chef, who represents the voice of experience and a character who has a reputation for having sex with many women, serves as a foil to this groupthink, asserting, unsuccessfully at this point in the episode, that sex education should not be taught in schools, especially to 8-10 year-old children.

In-class questions: Can you relate to the experience the South Park children have when you look back at your reactions to sex education classes you took during your elementary and secondary education? Recall a specific conversation you had with a fellow student about one of your lessons.  How did what you learned in the classroom compare with what you had learned from other sources? What were the differences?

Parallel analysis:  Explore how the theme of experience vs. expertise is developed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Why does John fail to understand the impact of his wife’s postpartum depression on her feelings, thoughts, and behavior?  How does his medical expertise inhibit his ability to come up with a more effective treatment plan? Explore the theme of experience vs. education in Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Identify the differences in how the mother and her well-educated daughter view the mother’s possessions?

Scare tactics and unintended consequences

Another theme students highlight is the ineffectiveness of fear as a way of changing behavior.  For example, when Wendy and Bebe indicate they believe the lessons will be fun, Miss Choksondick, responds with “scared straight” rhetoric.  “Fun, you think this is going to be fun! Well, let’s start with our first lesson then, shall we?  She writes SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES on the blackboard, asserting, That’s right, because unless you get boys to wear condoms you can and will get a sexually transmitted disease from them! …Gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, the list goes on and on (Parker & Stone, 2001).

This scene satirizes sex education classes.  The lessons are inappropriate for this age group:  the scare tactics about negative consequences lead to fear of sex rather than a lifelong commitment to responsible sexual behavior, the program’s stated purpose. This scene allows for a conversation on the effectiveness of fear appeals in reducing harmful behavior. Many students report having experienced similar fear appeals in high school about sex education, and about smoking, driving and texting, and drug use as well (Stewart, 2007).

A related theme is the role of unintended consequences. In her second presentation on sex education, Miss Choksondik stresses the traumas of pregnancy.

Alright girls.  Yesterday we went over the myriad of diseases you can get from boys, but today we’re going to talk about the most horrible thing they can give you of all.  Pregnancy!  That’s right, since you girls have decided to be sexually active; teen-pregnancy is at an all-time high!  You seem to think it’s gonna be fun and neat to have a baby, well let’s watch a little video shall we? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

During a video a narrator intones, “…later the contractions are happening closer together.  Mom sure is in a lot of pain.  Now we can see the crown of the baby’s head, stretching the vaginal walls in ways never before thought possible by Mom.  Finally, the miracle happens, and the baby is born.  But mom’s not done yet!  She still has some afterbirth to push out of her” (Parker & Stone, 2001).  This terrifies the girls who later run away from the boys when they meet in the cafeteria.

Students observe the children have too little relevant experience to understand the materials being shared.  Having learned about STDs and AIDS, fear replaces friendship, and their reaction is to reject the boys unless they wear condoms.

Wendy:  Stay away from me Stan!

Stan:  Why?

Wendy:  Are you wearing a condom?

Stan:  A what?!?

Girls: [all screaming loudly] AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!

Bebe:  Do any of you have your condoms on?

Kyle:  No.

Girls:  AAAAAAGGHHHHHHHH!

Wendy:  Don’t you know that without wearing a condom you could get a disease?

Kyle:  Nun. Uh.

Bebe:  yeah huh.  If you don’t wear a condom, you’re gonna get AIDS!

Wendy:  You guys have to wear condoms.  Now, please, just, just go away.  We don’t want your AIDS. (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The girls are terrified of having sex–and of boys in general. In response, the boys attempt to buy condoms at a drugstore.  While the older pharmacist is hesitant to fulfil this request, his assistant explains, “Kids are going to do what they do, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected. We just got in the new Gladiators for kids.  ‘Lil Mini’s.  They’re specially designed for kids under 10, and they’re only $5.95 for a box of fifty (Parker & Stone, 2001).” When the boys attempt to wear the condoms, Butters supplies rubber bands to make the condoms “stay on.”  He exclaims, “there isn’t nothing’ that’s getting’ in my wiener through this thing!  And it’s even got a little reservoir at the end so you can pee in it!” (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The teachers find out about the condom purchases and almost gleefully agree to start teaching sex ed. to kindergarten students–oblivious to their part in motivating the girls to fear sex and pregnancy and then insisting that the boys purchase condoms.

These scenes are used to generate conversation about experiences students have had when they believe their voices were not heard at home or in the classroom. Students point out that the children do not seek these remedies.  It is the parents who abdicate their responsibility to assess their children’s readiness to talk about sex, ask them questions about their experience, or see if the children have questions for them.

Students laugh at the unintended consequences of the sex education program: This spoof of the promotion of sex education from kindergarten through high school results in the boys and girls coming into conflict, each believing the other to be responsible for spreading disease.  They skirmish, with the girls protecting themselves behind a steel fortress and the boys, riding in battery operated cars, on the attack, using water guns to break through this defense.  In this battle, Kenny, hiding in his jacket, dies, a South Park plot convention, when struck by a boomerang. His death shows that the children are not the idealized innocents of their parents’ imaginations, another fruitful area for class discussion.

Nonetheless, while ignorant of carnal knowledge, the South Park children can be cruel and can experience fear, regret, anxiety, and especially in Kenny’s case, be subject to repeated extreme violence—and students can reflect on bullying they experienced in school and the emotional stress it created.

Similarly, some students report that like the South Park parents, their parents seemed only dimly aware their children were experiencing negative emotions.  This recognition serves as a source of the parents’ feelings of inadequacy, resulting in their histrionic outrage and grief over evidence that their children are leaving the Garden and facing uncertain and terrifying consequences which the parents cannot control.

In-class questions:  Recall how fear appeals were used in school programs about sex, drugs, tobacco, and driving?  As you remember student reactions to them, do you recall any unintended consequences, such as students mocking the presenter or the presentation?  What did they say and what was the reaction to their comments?

As a series, South Park suggests that parents don’t really understand what’s going on in their children’s lives. Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to your own school experiences, including bullying and being excluded from favored groups.

Parallel analysis:  Identify symbols in Jackson’s “The Lottery” that contribute to the imagery the story uses to develop the atmosphere of fear that builds until the story’s shocking resolution.

What are the unintended consequences of the grandmother’s actions in O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Identify text from the story that supports your analysis.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is another prominent theme of Proper Condom Use.  When Miss Choksondik and Mr. Mackey have unprotected sex, they are transgressing the lessons they promoted in the classroom. In fact, Miss Choksondick is so desperate for sexual contact, she offers Mr. Mackey a drink, strips naked, lowers her head off-screen, and is later portrayed with disheveled hair.  Students point out that his illustrates the limitation of education as a predictor of behavior:   while the teachers tell parents that sex education will lead their children to make responsible decisions, the teachers themselves fail to practice what they preach.

In-class prompts: Did you observe teachers or administrators practicing some of the actions the school discouraged in students, such as speeding or smoking? Did this affect your perception of the credibility of what was being taught?

Parallel analysisIdentify scenes in “Young Goodman Brown” where the protagonist increasingly grows disillusioned when he discovers the hypocrisy of adults he has known and trusted.

Genre

We point out that this South Park episode, a monolog, which we teach is a convention of satire and burlesque, lampoons the idea that if evil influences are not headed off early, a social apocalypse will occur—and the naive hope that experts can fix all issues children face. The monolog is delivered by Chef, the voice of experience, in which he calls for rationality and truthfulness from parents.

Chef:  Schools are teaching condom use to younger students each day.  But sex isn’t something that should be taught in textbooks and diagrams.  Sex is emotional and spiritual.  It needs to be taught by family.  I know it can be hard, parents, but if you leave it up to the schools to teach sex, you don’t know who they’re learning it from.  It could be from someone who doesn’t know, someone who has a bad opinion of it, or even a complete pervert.

Miss Choksondik:  He’s right.  I never knew how special and personal sex was until just recently.

Sharon:  This whole mess started because we couldn’t talk to our boys ourselves.

Sheila:  It’s easier just to leave it up to the school, but it’s just not a school subject.

Principal Victoria:  Then it’s decided:  no more condom classes in grade school.

Stan:  But Chef, when is the right age for us to start having sex?

Chef:  It’s very simple, children.  The right time to start having sex is…seventeen.

Kyle:  Seventeen?

Sheila:  So you mean seventeen as long as you’re in love?

Chef:  Nope, just seventeen.

Gerald:  But what if you’re not ready at seventeen?

Chef:  Seventeen!  You’re ready!

Stan:  Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

When the parents see the error of their ways, they show they can reflect on their actions and learn from experience. We point out viewers sympathize with them because they realize their behavior springs from a positive motive to protect their children from future harm, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “a comic corrective” which serves as a relief valve from the tensions of the war between the girls and boys.

Consistent with South Park’s transgressive nature, the episode ends with Cartman again “milking” the dog, indifferent to what he now knows is objectionable to the parents, as he finds it personally gratifying. Students point out this is another indication of a self-absorption and “will to power” that defines his character.

Discussion Prompt:  What purpose does the ending monologue, a convention of burlesque and of South Park, serve in this episode?

Parallel analysis:  Identify specific passages in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that reveal to the reader that the story is actually satire.

Audience Analysis 

After students have viewed the entire episode, we address the issue of audience analysis, asking students to identify what they find compelling in this episode and also how they see it appealing to other viewers (Duff, 2002).  Students identify plot elements that support differing value sets. The scriptwriters present a traditional perspective of morality—that parents, not schools, be the primary sex education teachers. Yet they mock conventional moral values by showing characters in highly degrading situations that stretch the limits of what is acceptable on television.  Chef presents a secular world view declaring the age seventeen is the right age to have sex–outside of love and marriage.  Finally, they reflect a populist perspective that implies gaining carnal knowledge from older adolescents during puberty is preferable to teaching it to elementary school children before they have the experience or physical maturity to understand its role in human society.

In-class prompt:  Why do you believe South Park resonates so strongly with a young and primarily male audience?  What plot elements and devices did you observe in Proper Condom Use that this demographic might find particularly amusing?

Parallel analysis:  Why do you believe “The Things They” Carried resonates so strongly with military combat veterans?  What plot elements and devices did you observe that this demographic might find particularly compelling? Justify your reasoning.

Conclusion

Within South Park’s ecosystem, the children remain ageless, indulging in the pleasures of childhood immaturity.  They serve as outsiders, spectators to the futility of parents and others who try to impose adult burdens on them.  Students laugh as they learn to identify specific evidence to support their analysis of the unintended consequences of the adults’ decisions and share similar stories from their own experience.

Our students report that they like this way of introducing them to basic literary concepts. They also enjoy it because it offers them the opportunity to reflect within a familiar learning space on something they have experienced in their own lives:  the use of fear appeals and worst case thinking intended to change young adult behavior–whether it be warnings about underage and unprotected sex, as in Proper Condom Use, or tobacco, alcohol and marijuana abuse as in South Park episodes Butt Out and My Future Self ‘N’ Me. In short, this exercise allows students to reflect thoughtfully as they share stories about their own school experiences with fear appeals while teachers can introduce literary concepts and how to document claims with specific evidence in an easily understood and relatable format.

Endnote

[1]  An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, January 2017.

References

Duff, P. (2002, March). Pop culture and ESL students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 482-488.

Hull, G. (Nov, 2003). At last: Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 229-233.

McDonald, Dwight. (1962). Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (NY: Random House).

Nixon, H. (1999, September 1). Adults watching children watch South Park. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12-16.

Parker, T. (Writer & Director). (2001, Season 5, Episode 7). Proper Condom Use. In T. Parker & M. Stone (Executive Producers). South Park. Comedy Partners; Comedy Central. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.

Stevens, L. (March, 2001). South Park and society. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 548-559.

Stewart, J. (2007). The Rhetoric of South Park, MA, University of Cincinnati, Dept of Communication.

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Jennifer Bateman, J. (October 2010). Rethinking composing in a digital age: Authoring literate identities through multimodal storytelling.  Written Communication, vol. 27, no.4, pp. 442-468.

Author Bios 

Julie Stewart teaches communication courses at the University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash and has experience teaching traditional, non-traditional, and adult students in weekend and evening classes.  Her research focuses on media, popular culture, and communication.

Thomas Clark teaches written, oral and interpersonal communication skills classes at Xavier University. He is author of numerous scholarly and pedagogical articles as well as author of Power Communication and co-author of The Writing Process. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas_Clark10

Marilyn Clark has taught in the English Department at Xavier University for 14 years—much of that time in the Weekend Degree Program, one that enables adults who work full time to obtain a college degree.  Clark is a playwright, whose play, Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas, has become an annual production of the Sharonville Cultural Arts Theatre in Cincinnati.

Reference Citation

APA
Stewart, J., Clark, T., & Clark, M. (2018). Deconstructing roper Condom Use as an introduction to literary analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2).
http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/deconstructing-proper-condom-use-as-an-introduction-to-literary-analysis-1/

MLA
Stewart, Julie, Tom Clark, and Marilyn Clark. Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/deconstructing-proper-condom-use-as-an-introduction-to-literary-analysis-1/

Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources

Kathryn N. McDaniel
Marietta College
Marietta, Ohio, USA
mcdaniek@marietta.edu

 

Abstract

Teaching students to evaluate sources—for accuracy, bias, and agenda—and to use them effectively despite their weaknesses, presents a challenge, and yet is essential in today’s crowded media landscape. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time helping students develop a critical eye for documentary evidence. Using the fictional informational sources J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to understand Albus Dumbledore’s troubled youth can provide students the analytic skills they need through an entertaining exercise. The Harry Potter stories intrinsically value the past, though Rowling is not naïve about the difficulty of understanding the truth from flawed sources. Throughout the series, but particularly in the last book, characters must weigh evidence and gain important information from biased sources to help them determine their future actions. Conflicting views of Albus Dumbledore in The Daily Prophet, Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and Aberforth Dumbledore’s eyewitness testimony about his brother, raise questions about the Hogwarts headmaster’s motivations and moral integrity. Only by sorting through these contradictory accounts can Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. When muggle students sort through these fictional accounts from the wizarding world, they nevertheless gain experience needed for navigating real-world sources to determine their own future paths. As a result, this exercise allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and their sense of historical consciousness.

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Historical Consciousness, Source Evaluation, Analysis, Evidence, Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Pedagogy

With cries of “fake news” at every turn, the urgency for teaching critical reading skills has mounted in recent months. Teaching students to evaluate sources for quality and usable content remains a constant challenge at almost every educational level. Despite the topic’s relevance, students are likely to approach the material with either an indifferent shrug or rolling eyes, chin in palm. For historians, the ability to analyze sources of information about the past and to use them appropriately has always been a central requirement of the discipline. But any educated person must have these abilities. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time discussing how to regard documents and other evidence with a critical eye. Although today we find ourselves inundated with information, most of our sources are not vetted by experts, are partisan (with varying degrees of openness about their bias), or have entertainment instead of accuracy as the top priority. Given this crowded yet flawed information landscape, evaluation of the quality and content of source materials has become a more essential skill than ever before. Students will find even more valuable the knowledge of how to use inherently biased sources effectively as evidence.

Pop culture approaches to source materials can make this rather workmanlike topic more immediately interesting to students. A useful and suitably complex exercise asks students to evaluate sources within the wizarding world of Harry Potter, particularly focused on the topic of Albus Dumbledore’s uncertain past. It may seem counterintuitive to base an assignment about source accuracy on a fictional text—and fictional informational texts within it—but the key is the thinking process behind discerning source limitations and strengths. By developing the analytic skills to examine and effectively use documentary evidence about past events, even imaginary ones, students can apply this critical thinking to real-world situations. Developing critical evaluation in a relatively politically neutral subject area helps students and faculty focus on the skill itself instead of politicized content. J.K. Rowling possesses a surprisingly strong critical sensibility about historical (and other) sources, which makes her books ideal for this kind of exercise. Requiring thoughtful decision-making about what happened in Dumbledore’s youth, this assignment helps students develop the essential skills needed to assess the quality of sources, identify the role played by their own expectations and biases, and even determine how to use imperfect accounts by biased authors in nevertheless responsible ways.

J.K. Rowling’s Personal, Political Past

In the Harry Potter universe, the past is never far removed from present-day problems. Rowling builds into the fabric of her stories an urgent need to know what really happened in history. In “Hermione Raised Her Hand Again: Wizards Writing History,” Anne Rubenstein examines the way that socially accepted history (what historians call “social memory”) butts up against scholarly sources in the wizarding world, with very serious consequences. She notes, “A historian who asks just the right question and uncovers just the right evidence to answer the question and interprets the evidence in just the right way can end up challenging what everyone believed the story of the past to be. And once in a while, changing the official story of the past changes the present as well” (310-311). Rubenstein examines the variety of sources wizarding-world characters use to discover information about the past, including official ones and counter-cultural or hidden ones. Her most significant take-away is the value Rowling places on historical knowledge and the ability of her characters to sort through many different kinds of accounts of the past in order to solve current problems.

In underscoring the usefulness of the past to the present, Rowling acknowledges what scholars of history and pedagogy have learned in recent years: that people intuitively know that the past is relevant and useful to the present, but that their confidence about where to find accurate information is low. In The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Thalen explain the results of a survey of Americans about their sense of history’s relevance, and where they might find the most accurate sources. Their study revealed that Americans have a strong sense of the usefulness of the past to the present, but that they distrust both commercial sources of historical information and official ones (like textbooks and school teachers). Instead, they tended to value most the personal testimony of people who have lived through historical events. This connection people feel to the past (if not to historians or history books) is vital to human endeavors. Klas-Göran Karlsson refers to “historical consciousness” as “a time compass that assigns meaning to past events and directs us to future projects” (129-130). As such, it is an essential tool for all citizens to be able to use. Rowling’s depiction of a highly personal past demonstrates this same sensibility. In the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry uses his conclusions about Dumbledore’s youth as a “time compass,” pointing him to the next steps on his quest.

Harry’s detachment from his own roots makes his development of critical thinking about the past more difficult, yet also more necessary. His status as an orphan targeted by the evil Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters stems from a past of which he has no memory, his parents’ involvement in a conflict that continues from their generation to his, and living friends and foes among those who experienced the prior conflicts. As a result, Harry must become adept at uncovering valid sources of information about what occurred before he was born. His friends assist him in this regard. Ron Weasley, as a wizarding-world insider, inherits and absorbs common knowledge (social memory) about the past from his family. Hermione Granger is an outsider like Harry who learns of the past through authoritative sources like their history teacher Professor Binns and books, specifically Hogwarts: A History. 

Harry must also identify and exclude invalid sources of information. Some presumably authoritative sources, like the Daily Prophet, reveal how easily they may be manipulated by either government censorship or the desire to pander to a fearful paying customer. Hermione also becomes wise to the (to her, unforgiveable) omissions in Hogwarts: A History when she learns of the role house-elves’ unpaid labor played in the school’s history; she claims the book should be renamed A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School (Goblet of Fire 238). Harry’s very survival in the present depends on the ability to analyze sources of history. But, importantly, so does the ultimate victory of good over evil. For the most part, Harry gleans relevant details from conversation with adults who lived through past traumatic events (the favored historical source of respondents in Rosenzweig and Thalen’s study), Hermione’s research, and occasional magical intervention like the Pensieve, which recreates the historical memories of individuals.

A crucial conflict emerges, however, when Albus Dumbledore dies in the sixth book. Harry has lost one of his chief and most credible sources of information about the past, present, and future. Indeed, the end of every prior book in the Harry Potter series involved a usually lengthy commentary on past events and how they relate to the present, either by Dumbledore himself or facilitated by him (as with Barty Crouch, Jr.’s veritaserum revelations at the end of Book 4). Now that authority is silent. Harry will have to go forward with Dumbledore’s plans to defeat Voldemort without his mentor’s reassuring presence or valuable historical perspective. Harry will have to find his own perspective on the past in the last book in order to complete his quest.

Unfortunately, in the seventh book Harry discovers that perhaps Dumbledore was not the man he thought. He encounters sources about Dumbledore’s youth that seem to contradict Harry’s personal understanding and that consequently call into question his mission in the present to fulfill Dumbledore’s quest for the horcruxes. Harry will have to decide how to weigh these sources about the past in making his own decisions in the present. He will find truth in unexpected, undeniably biased sources, ones that contradict his personal understanding of Dumbledore’s role in wizard history. He will agonize over the idea that Dumbledore’s past was complex and perhaps tainted by impure motives and aims. The end of the last book will show Harry confronting his own memory of Dumbledore and coming to terms with his mentor’s uncertain past. In the process of revealing these personal struggles that will determine whether good triumphs over evil in the end, Rowling provides readers with an opportunity to consider how to evaluate a variety of sources about the past.

Dumbledore: The Histories

Dumbledore is mostly silent about his own past. What Harry knows about the Hogwarts headmaster he knows from other sources. His first knowledge comes from what we might call a pop culture source of history, Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card:

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling. (Sorcerer’s Stone 102-103)

Harry comes to accept uncritically what we might think of as the social memory of Dumbledore, based on his heroic defeat of Grindelwald, especially when it is confirmed by Dumbledore’s mission to defeat Voldemort in the present. Importantly, this understanding of the headmaster conforms to the image shared by the adults around Harry—Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and the other Hogwarts faculty, for example—and therefore preserves an uncomplicated, heroic image of his mentor.

But in Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, Harry encounters new sources of information that tell him unexpected, important details about his deceased mentor. One he is inclined to agree with: Elphias Doge’s starry-eyed eulogy appearing in the Daily Prophet, which Harry reads early in the book. The other comes from shady journalist Rita Skeeter: a salacious exposé entitled The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Harry hears unsavory rumors about Dumbledore’s past from Ron’s Aunt Muriel, and then reads Skeeter’s promotional interview in which she heavily criticizes Doge’s account. He reads an excerpt from the exposé much later that, despite its scandal-mongering, nevertheless throws into question everything that Harry thinks he knows about Dumbledore’s character and ambitions. Toward the end of the last novel, when the children meet up with Albus’s brother before the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry will hear Aberforth Dumbledore’s eye-witness testimony, another undeniably biased account that nevertheless contains important elements of truth.

Rowling presents these sources for her readers so that we are similarly drawn to question their accuracy as well as what we thought we knew about Albus Dumbledore. Each of these accounts describes occurrences at the Dumbledore household shortly after Albus’s completion of Hogwarts and in between the deaths of his mother and his sister Ariana. For this exercise in source evaluation, students should read the documentary source excerpts Rowling provides in the text of the seventh novel. The two main sources are published documents: the first, the Daily Prophet’s eulogy, and the second, an unauthorized (and, we are told, lengthy) biographical book.

  1. “Albus Dumbledore—Remembered”: Doge’s eulogy of his friend mostly confirms Harry’s perspective on Dumbledore’s life, but reveals that there were complexities in his youth of which Harry has been unaware. As a former schoolmate, Doge portrays Dumbledore as the heroic defender of muggle rights, the powerful victor over the dark wizard Grindelwald, and a modest man who remained active in the politics of the wizarding world without seeking its highest office, Minister of Magic (Deathly Hallows 16-20).
  2. “The Greater Good”: the chapter excerpt from Skeeter’s exposé, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, throws Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore into serious question. Students should read a little before the excerpt in order to see the note that accompanied this copy of the book, which Skeeter gave to Bathilda Bagshot as “thanks” for being interviewed (“You said everything, even if you don’t remember it” (Deathly Hallows 352)) as well as the caption for the picture of Dumbledore standing with “his friend” Gellert Grindelwald (353). This except dwells with malicious glee on Albus’s “missing year,” during which he befriended the young dark wizard and penned a letter (also excerpted) advocating for wizard dominance over muggles “FOR THE GREATER GOOD” (352-359).

Students will evaluate these two main sources for their quality and should compare them to see where they corroborate each other and where they disagree. To facilitate questions about bias, students should also examine “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?,” the Daily Prophet’s interview with Skeeter as a promotion of her soon-to-be published book (Deathly Hallows 22-28). This interview appears in The Deathly Hallows immediately after Doge’s eulogy, and allows us to see both Skeeter’s view of “Dodgy” Doge’s limitations as a judge of Dumbledore’s life and character, as well as her particular biases and quite unsavory journalistic methods.

Historic Detection: Finding Dumbledore’s Missing Year

On the basis of these three excerpts—all printed material available to a mass wizarding audience—students should determine the relative value of these sources and what might be useful about them despite their biases. Here’s an example of a homework assignment that may be used to prime the students for class discussion:

Based on these three readings, evaluate the quality and reliability of the two main sources (by Elphias Doge and by Rita Skeeter). What are their perspectives, what evidence do they have, how useful is that evidence, and how well do you think they represent the truth about Dumbledore’s past? Ultimately, explain what you think a person reading these two descriptions can know about Dumbledore’s youth. What does this tell us about historical biography in general?

A short assignment like this allows the students to wrestle with the material outside of class and bring their own impressions, supported by evidence, into the discussion. This exercise may, of course, be done entirely in class, with students given this charge individually or in groups. The benefit of coming in with prior preparation is that students will have considered the documents at more length and probably in a more deliberate fashion. The benefit of carrying out the whole assignment in class is that students who have not previously formed an opinion may be more open to persuasion by other points of view. Either way, students will grapple with the key questions of what makes a source useful and whether biased sources (which each of these obviously is) can provide “true” information.

Whether they have prepared in advance or not, students in discussion should consider some of the following questions.

  • Why did Doge and Skeeter write their accounts? How do their purposes affect the validity of their versions of Albus Dumbledore’s life?
  • What are Doge’s and Skeeter’s personal perspectives on Dumbledore, where do their perspectives come from, and how to do they show themselves in these documents?
  • Do these perspectives amount to a detrimental “bias”? Why or why not?
  • On what authority do Doge and Skeeter claim to know the truth about Albus Dumbledore? Are these believable claims? How might they be challenged?
  • What sources do Doge and Skeeter rely on? Which of these has the most authority as evidence? Which are, therefore, the most believable?
  • How do Skeeter’s methods of getting information affect the reliability of her evidence? Do you find Skeeter’s implication that she used veritaserum  believable and does this enhance her credibility or detract from it?
  • Based on this analysis, what can a savvy reader determine to be likely true from these accounts? How can we reconstruct at least parts of Albus’s “missing year”?
  • What questions remain that cannot be satisfactorily answered by these sources? Where might wizards look for answers to these?

Once students have evaluated these written sources, show them the “oral” testimony of Albus’s brother Aberforth Dumbledore for comparison (Deathly Hallows 563-567). Harry, Hermione, and Ron ask Aberforth about the events of that pivotal year and listen to his version of events. Bitterness toward his high-achieving older brother colors Aberforth’s description of Albus’s friendship with Grindelwald and treatment of their sister Ariana. Students should consider whether this eyewitness account constitutes a more authoritative source of information than Doge’s or Skeeter’s and evaluate Aberforth’s biases, some of which were pointed out in Skeeter’s interview and book. Aberforth’s motives for talking about these episodes—for the first time, we’re told—should be a part of the discussion, as well.

  • Does this testimony confirm or undermine the version of events we determined from the published accounts?
  • Do we see Aberforth as a better source, given that he was an eyewitness to many of the events discussed? Or do those standing at a remove from history have better access to “the facts”?
  • What does this tell us about who can speak authoritatively about historic events?
  • Does this show that we value oral testimony more or less than we should?
  • Do Harry, Ron, and Hermione consider this to be a definitive account? How does hearing from Aberforth affect their course of action?

Students who have read the Harry Potter series will have an advantage in some respects in this last part of the conversation, but their knowledge of the larger story may also play into their judgment on these accounts. In the last book, even after his death, Albus Dumbledore has laid out a course of action for Harry, Ron, and Hermione: for them to seek and destroy the horcruxes so that they may defeat the evil Voldemort. Dumbledore’s own youth, however, reveals that he, like Voldemort, searched for the Deathly Hallows instead—the elder wand, the resurrection stone, and the invisibility cloak, which together defeat death. Harry must decide whether to seek the hallows or the horcruxes, and his doubts about his mentor’s moral purity make him question Albus Dumbledore’s direction. Aberforth tells his version of events in order to discourage Harry, Ron, and Hermione from entering Hogwarts to seek the remaining horcruxes. The three protagonists will have to sort through the varied accounts of Dumbledore’s youth in order to decide their course to victory. Ultimately accepting a less-heroic image of the Hogwarts headmaster, the Trio will nevertheless pursue his path in seeking horcruxes instead of hallows. This does, indeed, lead to the victory of good over evil. Knowing this result in advance may cause students to look at the documents differently. It may be useful to ask students about whether they think their prior knowledge of the Harry Potter story influenced their decision-making in this exercise.

To cap off this exercise, students may be encouraged to read Harry’s conversation with the deceased Albus at King’s Cross station toward the end of the novel, in which they discuss his guilt and temptation by dark magic (707-723). This passage contains clues that this is not the actual Dumbledore, but rather represents Harry’s cohering understanding of this complex man (Perez). Students might consider the degree to which various sources influenced Harry’s perspective in the end, and whether they arrived at conclusions similar to Harry’s from a critical reading of all the available sources.

Toward a Useable (Muggle) Past

Although this exercise uses fictional sources in a fantasy universe, it can—paradoxically perhaps—help students find the unexpected relevance of sources about the past. Ask students who know the larger Harry Potter story how a different interpretation of Dumbledore’s past might have changed Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s actions, and thereby changed the story’s outcome. How are interpretations of the past in the present, muggle world affecting both personal and political decisions? Where do they see this in their own lives? Have they ever had the experience of learning something new about the past that shook their understanding of themselves in the world or their sense of what they should do in the future?

As students navigate research projects of various kinds, they will need to be able to evaluate the quality and usefulness of their sources. More than that, they must be able to find what is useful even in problematic sources. Rare indeed are pure and unbiased sources of information. In their absence, we are all called upon to find what is true and important even in flawed materials. This exercise can help students to go even further than identifying bias; it can help them to determine how to use biased sources for valid research anyway. What could be more useful in our often unfair and unbalanced world today?

Works Cited

Karlsson, Klas-Göran. “Processing Time—On the Manifestations and Activations of Historical Consciousness.” Historicizing the Uses of the Past: Scandinavian Perspectives on History Culture, Historical Consciousness and Didactics of History Related to World War II. Eds. Helle Bjerg, Claudia Lenz, and Erik Thorstensen. Transaction Publishers. 2011. 129-144.

Perez, Jeanina. “Magical Rememory: How Memory and History Collide to Produce Social Change in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga.” Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference. Alburquerque, New Mexico. February, 2016. Presentation.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thalen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Columbia UP. 1998.

Rubenstein, Ann. “Hermione Raised her Wand Again: Wizards Writing History.” Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancy Reagan. John Wiley and Sons. 2011. 309-321.

Author Bio

Kathryn N. McDaniel is Andrew U. Thomas Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. Although her specialty is early modern British history, she teaches a wide variety of courses in world history, modern European history, feminism, history of science, and historiography, and is the editor of Virtual Dark Tourism: Ghost Roads. In addition to teaching a course on Harry Potter and the Liberal Arts, she has published several articles on Harry Potter scholarship and pedagogy, hosts the MuggleNet podcast “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” and is the co-editor of Harry Potter for Nerds II.

Reference Citation

MLA

McDaniel, Kathryn N. “Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no 1, 2018 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.

APA

McDaniel, K. N. (2018). Dumbledore’s uncertain past: A Harry Potter approach to evaluating sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.

Considering Ethical Questions in (Non)Fiction: Reading and Writing about Graphic Novels

Gene McQuillan
Kingsborough Community College /The City University of New York
Brooklyn, NY, USA
genekcc@aol.com

Abstract

Teachers often feature graphic novels in college courses, and recent research notes how these texts can help make the process of reading more engaging as well as more complex. Graphic novels help enhance a variety of “literacies;” they offer bold representations of people dealing with trauma or marginalization; they explore how “texts” can be re-invented; they exemplify how verbal and visual texts are often adapted; they are ideal primers for introducing basic concepts of “post-modernism.” However, two recurring textual complications in graphic novels can pose difficulties for students who are writing about ethical questions. First, graphic novels often present crucial scenes by relying heavily on the use of verbal silence (or near silence) while emphasizing visual images; second, the deeper ethical dimensions of such scenes are suggested rather than discussed through narration or dialogue. This article will explain some of the challenges and options for writing about graphic novels and ethics.

Keywords: Graphic novels; ethics; literacies; Art Spiegelman; Maus; Alison Bechdel; Fun Home

I am committed to using graphic novels in my English courses. This commitment can be a heavy one–in my case, it sometimes weighs about 40 pounds. If one stopped by my Introduction to Literature course at Kingsborough Community College (the City University of New York), one could see exactly what I mean.

A substantial part of the course focuses on Art Spiegelman’s Maus (and Meta-Maus); these texts are often paired with excerpts from Elie Wiesel’s Night and recent critical commentaries about constructing the “canon.” During one class in the Maus sequence, I bring two large bags of books, all of them graphic novels.1 I leave class with a lighter load, since ALL of the students browse through the texts and choose one as an independent reading. Certain texts get snatched quickly: Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, Kejii Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, Frank Miller’s Sin City and Brian Vaughn’s V: The Last Man. Other texts usually require a bit more “selling”: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, Mat Johnson’s Incognegro, Gene Luen Yang’s American-Born Chinese, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer and, of course, Will Eisner’s classic, A Contract with God.

Reasons for Featuring Graphic Novels in a Course

Graphic novels tend to create converts, and converts often get a bit carried away. This sort of enthusiasm is often evident when students browse through graphic novels. The students can and often do take more than one text, and they soon realize that there is a wide and surprising world of “literary” texts out there. While I surely appreciate their engagement, I have also been investigating whether and how graphic novels will remain an essential component of my teaching practices. Why bring bags of graphic novels to a college Introduction to Literature course? At least five criteria seem crucial. Graphic novels:

  • Help students of many different readings levels and backgrounds develop a wide range of “literacies.” This process relies on a very broad and nuanced approach to how people and groups “read” and construct meaning.2
  • Encourage innovative texts for encouraging dialogues about “otherness,” about illness, about marginalized groups and outsiders, about the ways in which both individuals and groups use images and narratives to create, assign and/or challenge identities.3
  • Provide concrete examples of how texts are “constructed” or “re-invented,” since even simple matters such as fonts and punctuation and pages are often radically re-imagined.4
  • Represent an on-going shift toward “visual culture,” and allow students to get a clearer sense of how verbal and visual texts are adapted for different media and how they have they own distinct discursive expectations.5
  • Serve as ideal primers for introducing students to some basic concepts and binary tensions of “post-modernism”: construction and deconstruction, chance and design, irony and intertextuality, high art and pop culture, linear and non-linear texts.6

My research about graphic novels also led to an innocuous blog entitled “Getting Graphic.” The blog is primarily a basic review of recent scholarship on teaching such texts, yet one of its concluding claims led to writing this article: “Graphic novels have received attention for their ability to motivate reluctant readers and support multiliteracies. However, graphic novels are not only for readers who struggle. Sequential art benefits already motivated students and supports the examination of ethical issues with gifted students” (4; italics added). I am convinced that graphic novels can present some serious challenges for all students, for “reluctant readers” as well as “already motivated students” and “gifted students.” Yet I will be direct about my concern: a series of problems can arise when writing assignments about graphic novels encourage students to engage in an “examination of ethical issues.”

Of course, the previous sentence demands some immediate clarifications. As for “writing assignments,” I will focus on writing courses in community colleges, especially those courses known as WAC and/or WI sections: the acronyms stand for Writing-Across-the-Curriculum and/or Writing Intensive. I have been tutoring and teaching at CUNY (the City University of New York) since 1983, and I have been a full-time English professor at KCC (Kingsborough Community College) in Brooklyn since 1993. While at KCC I’ve often taught ENG 30, an “Introduction to Literature” course, also listed as a Writing Intensive / Honors course. In practical terms, we do numerous revised and in-class essays, and roughly 30 percent of the students will be affiliated with the college’s Honors Program. I have often taught texts such as Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, David Small’s Stitches, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in ENG 30, and while doing so, I have had to remain aware of a basic fact. I am teaching a Writing Intensive course about Literature in which very, very few students—even those in the Honors program—are potential English majors. As I write this, no program for an English major or minor is available at KCC, so for the great majority of students, “Introduction to Literature” is their first and last English elective. Roughly 60 percent of our incoming students speak English as their second language, many represent the first generation in their family to attend college, and many have a family income below $30,000 a year. The challenge of teaching such courses has become a serious issue at many other colleges, and an intriguing study of such courses appears in a 2015 article from The CEA [College English Association] Forum. The article “‘You are asking me to do more than just read a book’: Student Reading in a General Literature Course” makes a series of claims about how a literature course for non-majors can and should work. The authors state:

Study findings indicate that both students and teachers find students to be most engaged in literature when given some autonomy to direct their reading choices and when prompted to identify the relevance of texts to their lived experiences; that a literature course for non-majors offers opportunities for students to develop or reclaim reading habits; and that both students and teachers perceive such a course to offer students opportunities to learn transferable reading and writing skills. (Amicucci et al. 2-3)

This statement serves to identify a few crucial ways in which teachers and students alike can make active decisions about finding readings that are both serious and appealing. As I consider the article’s references “autonomy” or “relevance” or “reclaiming” certain “transferable” skills, they seem both familiar and convincing; they neatly summarize much of what I aim to do in my daily practice as a teacher.

Graphic novels would thus appear to be a helpful resource in a course for non-majors. Yet the term “graphic novel” also deserves clarification, since “graphic novels” are so varied that generalizing about them would be pointless. Thus, my argument will focus on four well-known graphic memoirs: I will directly discuss Spiegelman’s Maus and Bechdel’s Fun Home, and I will briefly note the relevance of Satrapi’s Persepolis and Small’s Stitches. All are memoirs in which an adult tries to reconstruct how the traumas of his or her youth are paired with very painful or contentious family matters. While teaching these texts, I’ve seen ample evidence in support of the five criteria previously noted: improving literacies, discussing otherness, deconstructing texts, analyzing visual culture, and contextualizing post-modernism. Reluctant and struggling readers have eagerly asked for my personal copies of Persepolis II and Maus II, even though these sequels are not assigned. Other students have shared their interests in comics and other forms of visual culture, such as anime and manga, providing us with accessible examples of how terms such as “literature” and “literacy” are far from self-explanatory.

Students from highly diverse (and potentially divisive) backgrounds have worked together to explain, for example, how and why religious “veils” are significant or how societies have created complex (and often vicious) associations between people and animals. Noting how these associations are often visualized has lead in turn to discussions of how seemingly neutral and objective images, such as a newspaper photograph, draw from a deep well of assumptions. Such discussions became concrete when we considered two seemingly simple concepts, namely “page” and “scene.” We read Meta-Maus and noted how Spiegelman often drew many different versions of the same page, or we chose a single scene from a text and watched as it is then adapted, as one can see in the film version of Persepolis; after this, students needed little convincing that artists and authors actively “construct” their texts. We have had vigorous discussions of what qualifies as a “literary/non-literary” or “fiction/non-fiction” texts. Can a “comic” (or a Campbell soup can or an upturned toilet bowl) be considered “art?” Can they explain why the best-seller list of the New York Times initially listed Maus as “fiction?” Also, students were often highly motivated when other students spoke boldly of how their experiences inform their reading. Examples abound in the highly diverse microcosm of KCC classrooms, and when students speak of the Holocaust survivor in their family or the reasons why they wear hijab or a decision to “come out” to their family, one can almost feel the room spin as the students’ attention and voices shift to become more attuned to a new revelation.

KCC teachers continually try to navigate the various and shifting cultural codes in a college where a “typical” class of twenty-five students might feature a dozen nationalities/ethnicities, an even higher number of bilingual students, and a fascinating range of religious beliefs. It would require a far longer text than this to try to register even a partial set of these cultural variables and to suggest some methods for addressing them in a class setting. My goals are more modest, and will focus on certain distinct formal aspects of graphic novels that may become a crucial part of the process of writing a complex “examination of ethical issues.” Graphic novels surely share numerous formal characteristics with traditional prose narratives; for example, both a graphic novel and a traditional novel might feature multiple narrative lines as well as distinct narrative voices and perspectives. These multiple viewpoints might in turn encourage readers to consider a more nuanced and multi-faceted discussion of ethical issues. However, there are certain features of graphic novels—such as presenting crucial scenes by relying heavily on visual images while offering little or no verbal contexts—which might engage students as readers while also presenting them with a potentially frustrating occasion for doing academic writing.

What Do We Write About When We Write about Ethics?

The term “ethics” comes pre-loaded with assumptions and associations that often lead people to the sort of impasses mentioned by David Foster Wallace: “Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?” (257). In an attempt to settle on a practical way to frame these debates, I have focused on how “ethics” might be discussed in WAC (Writing-Across-the-Curriculum) courses. One current option is to use the term “ethics” to refer to a prescribed code of professional conduct. This choice is more likely for students in fields that lead to some sort of licensing: graphic novels (or at least very reductionist versions of them) have already been recommended for use by students of medicine and law. Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education is developing a more innovative version of this process. It offers an M.S. in “Narrative Medicine,” and courses such as “Giving and Receiving Accounts of Self” focus on medical ethics while also reviewing texts by Henry James and Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler, as well as graphic texts such as Stitches (www.narrativemedicine.org). Other teachers have considered employing graphic novels (or other literary texts for that matter) as a redemptive means of building character or morals or making students “better people.” Scholars such as Martha Nussbaum have long argued that literature can and should have a crucial place in a society’s discussion of ethics. She is very direct in calling for the humanities to play a strong role in directing the moral development of today’s college students. As she states in “Compassionate Citizenship,” “Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far” (3). Other scholars, such as Richard Rorty, are suspect of the over-arching narratives that govern the “moral work” that remains implicit in such ethical contexts. As Rorty claims, societies “might work better if they stopped trying to give universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing to notions like ‘rationality’ and ‘human nature,’ and instead viewed themselves simply as promising social experiments” (193). I am not offering this statement as a one-sentence encapsulation of post-modernism, yet it may help to frame one basic issue facing teachers who try to introduce ethical terms into various assignments. Teachers who try to introduce and clarify traditional terms (perhaps “liberty” or “human rights”) may feel a sense of both urgency and hesitancy while doing so. If one invokes Derrida and places such terms sous rature (that is, liberty), or cordons them off inside quotations marks, or literally erases such terms from the board while teaching, then what replaces them? At the risk of generalizing about KCC students, many seem to prefer their metaphysics and universal values delivered without a chaser of irony or contingency. How then can one speak to students of “ethics” when the term calls forth so many different and contradictory meanings?

One particular statement from John Rothfork has helped frame the debate about the contentious status of post-modern ethics. His phrasing seems well-suited for describing how teachers negotiate the many and varied “contact zones” in their classes: “There is currently a fight in America over the operational logic or vocabulary which enables public or ethical discourse to proceed. The fight is over how we—as women, Native American Indians, Buddhists—talk about our ethical performative knowledge” (18). This search for an “operational logic” is indeed crucial, and the reference to “we” suggests how tenuous this process can become. In this case, Rothfork’s initial use of “we” seems to indicate a unified group, but the next phrase reminds us of our shifting and multiple allegiances. As I have read and re-read Rothfork’s statement, I’ve found it hard to isolate and name “the operational logic or vocabulary” that guides the “performative” aspect of ethical discussion (18; italics added). KCC students represent such a diversity of backgrounds that it seems more likely we’ll discuss pluralities—that is, “logics” and “vocabularies” rather than some singular and comprehensive term. When I do ask students to consider ethical questions, I’ve found that there are crucial places in graphic novels that leave us wondering about how this might be done, and both the students and I have found this to be problematic.

Writing the Ethical: An Assignment about a TraditionalNovel

What might I consider to be a text which provides students with a challenging option for writing about ethics? My ENG 30 course usually features Edwidge Dandicat’s 2004 novel The Dew Breaker, a series of nine interwoven stories. The “dew breaker” is an unnamed 65-year-old Haitian immigrant who lives with his wife (Anne) and daughter (Ka) in East Flatbush near the Brooklyn Museum. A reader need not wait long to find that this man has committed and hidden horrific crimes—namely torturing and killing both political prisoners and completely innocent civilians—during the revolutions in 1960‘s Haiti. He had semi-confessed to some of his crimes to his wife years ago when their daughter was born. Now his secrets are causing all sorts of trouble. His daughter, an artist who had fully believed her father’s stories about being a political prisoner, has created an evocative sculpture in his honor that is about to be sold to a prominent Haitian TV star; his tenant in the basement apartment has recognized the “dew breaker” as the man who killed his parents years ago in Haiti; the Haitian community is openly seeking for retribution against the killers among them; a young college student and rookie journalist named Aline devoted herself to telling the stories of the victims of these crimes; his wife, who had found some consolation in prayer and faith, now believes that she is living a soul-destroying lie.

By the end of the book, there’s no clear resolution of the braided narratives sketched above, just a scenario in which every character must soon act, each knowing full well that most of these actions could lead to their own downfall. This ending, of course, presents a reader with much more than just a narrative “cliffhanger,” and in one of my writing assignments I ask the following:

During the final pages of the book, Anne is left wondering whether “reparation and atonement are possible”—and the book then ends without clarifying this for a reader. What do the terms “reparation and atonement” mean in general, and what specific meanings might these words have for these five characters in the book: Ka, Anne, Dany, Aline, and “the dew breaker” himself? Please analyze the varied responses of at least TWO characters. What key criteria or terms would seem most important to these characters? Please make sure to refer to specific scenes and/or statements from the book and to explain their significance.

Students generally do not find it hard to start a response, since the characters have often studied the contours of their own entrapments and silences. One story within the novel, “Book of Miracles,” features one scene that students often cite. Anne is in church for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with her husband and daughter. During a moment when the entire congregation is hushed, Ka urgently whispers to her mother that she has spotted—or thinks she has spotted—a notorious torturer also known to be living a shadowy life in Brooklyn. Faced with the ethical dilemma of speaking or remaining silent, the two women frame their choices using very different vocabularies. Ka (who does not yet know of her father’s crimes) is furious, and barely restrains herself from shouting out. Anne is having other thoughts :

What if it were Constant? What would she do? Would she spit in his face or embrace him, acknowledging a kinship of shame and guilt that she’d inherited by marrying her husband. How would she even know whether Constant felt any guilt or shame? What if he’d come to this Mass to flaunt his freedom? To taunt those who’d been affected by his crimes? What if he didn’t even see it that way? What if he considered himself innocent? Innocent enough to go wherever he pleased? As a devout Catholic and the wife of a man like her husband, she didn’t have the same freedom to condemn as her daughter did. (81)

As the students reply to the essay prompt, I am not looking for a firm prescriptive answer about what a character should finally “do,” nor am I expecting that the students will take Anne or Aline or Dany’s dilemmas as a means of achieving some personal epiphany about their own ethical bearings. If I have any particular theoretical framework for my writing courses, it would be that of a socio-linguist, one who is intrigued and compelled by the “code-switching” that we all do while assuming various discursive roles. As James Paul Gee states in Social Linguistics and Literacies, “Any time we act or speak, we must accomplish two things: we must make clear who we are, and we must make clear what we are doing. We are each not a single who, but different whos in different contexts” (124). The conflicting arguments of Nussbaum and Rorty and Rothfork indicate that the ability to firmly define “ethics” remains elusive—yet the deep and recurring desire to try to share even a provisional public exchange of ideas about ethics is undoubtedly what keeps this conversation going at all. Which “vocabularies” are in play in The Dew Breaker, and just who is employing them? Might one start with Anne’s tortured silence as a believer and a cowardly co-conspirator? Or Ka’s hip art-school atheism and activism? Or Dany’s return to Haiti to learn how his parents’ pastoral community deals with their own members’ transgressions? Or the declarations of universal principles from human rights’ groups that are directly quoted in the novel? Or might it be Aline’s decision to look past her academic training as a journalist intern and to now write as an advocate for those “men and women chasing fragments of themselves long lost to others?” (137).

While dealing with texts such as The Dew Breaker, students usually can write their way into a fairly nuanced discussion of how ethical decisions can be shaped and informed by culture and language, by images and symbols, by legal codes and social customs. Traditional prose narratives often encourage this process. One reads of a character and notes how their ideas arise in a sequence, one that may not be quite rational and consistent, but one that has its own cadence, structure, phrasing, evasions, echoes. It is this process of speaking and restraining from speech, one that Dandicat calls “coded utterances,” that demands careful attention. How might a similar process take place while reading (and then writing about) a graphic novel? How might the reading of graphic novels complement, and perhaps complicate, the ways in which students read more traditional prose narratives? And finally, how might the reading of a graphic novel present students with a strikingly different perspective? For example, what if Dandicat’s description of Anne’s tormented self-examination featured few or no words? What if readers were presented instead with a few close-ups of Anne’s face and hands as she glanced again and again at the man she believed to be Constant? How might they write their way into a discussion of the ethical contexts for that moment?

Writing the Ethical: Assignments about Graphic Novels

“Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice” (68).
— from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

As we read Spiegelman’s Meta-Maus, students can work on various topics about trauma, about post-modern memory, about adapting and re-adapting, about the careful composition of every page. The publication of Meta-Maus, with its archival pictures and video and interview transcripts, allows students to see how memory is both retrieved and re-created in a survival tale. How then might students write about moments in a graphic novel when a character/person finds themselves at the edge of an ethical cliff?

Maus certainly features many such moments. One obvious context for reading most “survivor tales” is that the author cannot rely too much on suspense. We all know from the start that Art Spiegelman and his father Vladek lived to tell this tale, so the question “Did they eventually survive?” is almost immediately displaced by the question “What did they do to survive?” and some version of its implicit corollary: “And did they lose their souls/compromise their dignity while doing so?” The latter chapters feature a series of almost unbearable decisions facing the Spiegelman family and their friends as they move from one “hole” to the other. In class, we generally focus on three distinct scenes. In the first, the Spiegelman family must decide whether to turn over their elderly relatives to the Nazis for deportation (or be taken away themselves); in the second, a group of Jews hiding desperately in a secret bunker must decide whether to kill a fellow Jew who has found them, and who may also be a Nazi informant. The third scene is given the most careful attention. The Nazis have overrun a town, and they are rapidly approaching the home of Vladek’s sister Tosha. She then faces a horrifying decision, as she must quickly decide whether to allow herself, her two young children, and her nephew Richieu (Art’s older brother) to be captured—or to poison herself and the children (109). Students often respond very strongly to these scenes when we discuss them in class, since they present such painful and irrevocable choices. Yet there are two recurring textual complications in many graphic novels that can pose difficulties for students who are writing about these texts. First, graphic novels often present crucial scenes by relying heavily on the use of verbal silence (or near silence) while emphasizing visual images; second, the deeper ethical dimensions of such scenes are suggested rather than discussed.

Students soon notice that Speigelman often uses relatively long and patiently detailed series of panels for seemingly minor events (Vladek’s complaints about his glass eye or his pills or Vladek’s joking with Anja about losing and finding a pillow during a refugee march) while retelling more disturbing events (the death of his own father or even the arrival at the gates of Auschwitz) in very terse and compressed sequences. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the death of Tosha and Richieu, which Vladek calls the “tragedy among tragedies.” The entire sequence fills less than a page (see Image 1). It’s a very painful and evocative scene, and students are quick to notice how the elimination of details forces one to be attentive to what remains. For example, imagine the tone and volume of the word “NO!” Just note what her face and her collapsing shoulders convey as panels 5, 6 and 7 zoom in closer and closer. Or shudder as she quickly turns from the window, calls the children to her, and _______. (Dare we imagine the details of what follows?) It also challenges the whole premise of the book, that is, how one needs to both “retrieve” and “create” memory. (The news of Richieu’s death was gathered in fragments. Maus II mentions how Vladek and his wife Anja spend months after the war looking for Richieu, unaware of the scene described above.) When I’ve met students again in subsequent semesters, it is often that scene which has formed their sharpest recollections of graphic novels, of representations of the Holocaust, of “the creation of memory,” of our course in general.

Image-1

Image 1: Maus

Yet can they then write about the scene’s ethical dimensions? For example, as we read Maus, we often read related scenes from Elie Wiesel’s Night, including one in which Wiesel considers throwing himself into a ditch filled with burning bodies. He does not, yet he is devastated to realize that the men around him are reciting the mourner’s Kaddish as they continue walking. Wiesel presents his ethical anguish in much bolder terms and closes this section with his famous invocation: “Never shall I forget that night…” While writing about that section, students often notice the seven repetitions of “Never,” the imagery of children being turned into “wreaths of smoke,” the implications of a “silent” sky, the despair which “murdered my God” (30-31). As one of their writing options, students are asked to consider the differences between these two types of texts:

COMPLEX COMMIX?: The graphic novel Maus obviously challenges a reader’s assumptions about whether a seemingly simple form can fully convey the complex emotions and ideas of people or characters. The book feature a series of scenes in which people must make very difficult ethical decisions. To what extent and in what ways might a graphic novel be more or less convincing or insightful than a traditional literary text while trying to represent the ethical conflicts of such scenes? You may refer to any of the texts we’ve read (or will read), or you may choose your own examples.

Here’s where a recurring issue has arisen–students often find it not just difficult but almost impossible to develop a sustained analysis of the ethical contexts for a scene such as the death of Richieu. It’s not that this moment lacks an ethical charge. Yet students have grave difficulties getting past the obvious points that Tosha has two horrifying options (infanticide and suicide vs. handing over herself and the children to face unspeakable violence) and that she is feeling desperate, hesitant, tormented, resigned. Students often struggle to provide an analysis which moves beyond these obvious points How might they move past their initial obvious statements, or, as I might ask in somewhat more technical terms, “What do you/we imagine to be in the gutter?” Don’t look at the text for some rain-filled trench–in the terminology of comics, the “gutter” refers to the literal/imagined “spaces” between panels or other distinct sections of the text, and as Scott McCloud says in his classic text Understanding Comics, “Despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics” (66). In this scene, the “gutter” between panels 7 and 8 seems especially resonant—the first panel features Tosha in near-collapse from the burdens now upon her, while in the next panel she has straightened up, wheeled around, and started an irrevocable act. “Gutters” get filled with all sorts of things besides basic assumptions about narrative continuity or what some comic artists simply call “closure.” Gutters invite us to fill them with allusions and voices-that is, they become intertextual. As teachers we may need to resist the urge to presume this knowledge of other texts and contexts that lead to a nuanced analysis. As an obvious example, a reference to suicide or infanticide may remind experienced readers of various characters and authors and texts: Hamlet, Sylvia Plath, Henry Scobie, Ernest Hemingway, Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills,” Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother.” Many literary associations may be unfamiliar, and even if they are, that brings up a further impasse. My students and I (and dare I say any other readers?) are the ones projecting these assumptions into the lacunae between these panels, rather than actually analyzing the contexts most crucial to Tosha. Might we be vaguely “right” while making certain assumptions about her doubts and terrors? Probably–but as I ask “What’s in the gutter?”, the ethical contexts generally become vague or even remain inaccessible.

One should not immediately be dismissive of the use of “silence” in a text, and many readers will already know of Foucault’s dictum that “There is not one but many silences.” However, for writers who are still struggling with the nuances of academic discourse, such “silences” in the “gutter” can lead to a lot of vagueness and potential confusion, and in courses where the development of precise language is so very crucial, this surely matters. Maus is surely not an isolated example, and it is almost chatty compared to Persepolis or Stitches. For example, a pivotal sequence in Persepolis depicts Marjane’s visit to the jail cell of her beloved Uncle Anoosh on the eve of his execution for being a political dissident. During this full-page sequence of panels, the two are alone in his cell—and Marjane says not a word (69). In Stitches, Small is a told a devastating truth about his place in his family—and this is followed by eleven pages (often referred to as the “rain sequence”) in which not a single word appears (257-268).Of course, this silence is an intentional effect, and an interview with David Small suggests a crucial distinction about visual and verbal communication. He notes, “I like to say that images get straight inside us, bypassing all the guard towers. You often go to the movies and see people with tears streaming down their cheeks, but you don’t see this in libraries, not in my experience at least.” He adds, “If told in words—even if I could have—the story would have lost that visceral impact” (2). Small’s memoir seems to both confirm and challenge some of the suggestions made in the previously cited article from The CEA Forum about assigning reading for non-majors. The text allows for students to find “relevance” in Small’s depictions of family, alienation, trauma, therapy, imagination, and a text that is able to “bypass the guard towers” often gives credence to deeply felt personal narratives. It can be used as a way to move from a “visceral” text to the more verbally oriented texts often found in academic disciplines. Yet teachers still need to be attentive about the “transferable writing skills” that non-majors might learn from these crucial sequences from texts such as Stitches. To be direct, what can we ask students about what Marjane and David are thinking in the sequences mentioned above? If there are “vocabularies” for their dilemmas, how might one know them and comment on them?

So could I name a graphic novel which might be less “evasive,” which might employ “gutters” in a way that allows for a fuller discussion of ethical discourse? I would suggest Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed 2006 memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The book itself is all about evasion after evasion, primarily about how a closeted gay father and lesbian daughter “speak” of their own sexuality. Both seem to “know” that the other’s public identity is a shadow-play, but for the greater part of the book neither ventures to speak directly of their presumptions–instead, we read of their mumbling and code words and knowing glances. Above all, father and daughter “speak” through books, some given as gifts that seem more like invitations for dialogue, others that are discussed in English courses, others used to suggest what cannot yet be said. Toward the end of the book, Bechdel becomes increasingly aware that these silences are not just awkward but damaging, and she resolves to speak out. A crucial exchange appears on pages 218-219 (see Image 2). In a panel near the top of the page 218, Alison is lying on the couch as her father approaches and asks her to help polish some silver. While in the kitchen they have yet another failed dialogue about the movie Cruising, and the scene could easily be read as a pair of missed chances—the chance for Alison to speak, and the chance for readers to know more of what Alison is really thinking. It should be noted that none of the four books I’ve mentioned use extended dialogues, and nor do the vast majority of graphic novels; often this choice isn’t a rejection of dialogue but simply a recognition that the visual format of most graphic texts simply does not leave much space for verbal exchanges. Also, while memoirs rely heavily on voices, the voices of Vladek Spiegelman, Taji Satrapi, the Small family, and Bruce Bechdel are generally terse and understated. The key difference is that the “gutters” of Fun Home are like over-flowing baskets of interior monologue and literary allusion. Neither of these terms is really adequate here. “Interior monologue” is a barren label for a memoir in which self-conscious over-writing appears on almost every page. Readers need to engage with lines such as “I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the Scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking Charybdis of my family” (213). These brief allusions are often paired with lengthy and direct quotations from writers such Proust, Fitzgerald, Wilde, Joyce, and so many others, which in turn may be contrasted with both images and text from movies, letters, album covers, news headlines, dictionary entries, and her own somewhat neurotic diary. The effect of these methods is that they allow for a much more substantial discussion of an ethical issue.

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Image 2: Fun House

To be honest, my description of the previous dialogue was intentionally incomplete. Before the conversation starts, Bechdel adds a key reference. As her father is talking, Alison is reading a section of Kate Millett’s Flying, and this excerpt is quoted in full:

Jill sits across from me saying there is not enough opportunity for heroism over here. I am late coming into this mean old bar full of Americans. Too early for a martini but I have one anyway. Jill is eating a sandwich. Heroism is suspect, I say. She frankly wants to be heroic. “Admit it, you do too,“ she says. I do sometimes. Not now. Now it just seems deluded. Because she has said it out loud.

This brief excerpt from Millett introduces the themes underlying the strained conversation that follows: the desperate need to speak, the desire or fear of the “heroism” that this entails, the rising tension between “now” and not now,” the choppy declarations and the continued retreats into a veiled silence. All of these are given resonance, so that even Bruce Bechdel’s derisive “Snort!” becomes significant (219).

Non-majors who are becoming familiar with reading more complex literary texts can also learn a great deal about the form of an ethical argument or question simply by analyzing the ways in which Bechdel challenges the very idea of a “page.” In some ways, pages 100-101 are not that surprising: a splash page features a photograph overlaid by eight distinct text boxes containing questions, captions, and loose associations. The photograph is of a young man named Roy who had often done both child-care and landscaping for the family. Yet the underlying question is surely a resonant one: why would her father have taken—and kept—a photograph of Roy lying almost naked on a hotel bed? What was the father trying to reveal or conceal? What may she as an author now assume or reveal about her father’s semi-hidden past? The answers are neither immediate nor conclusive. Instead, the text boxes are arranged almost chaotically, both forcing and allowing a reader to create some sort of logical sequence—or a variety of sequences. In David Small’s terms, the image of Alison’s hand holding this picture does “bypass all the guard towers” and create a very “visceral” response while also using the text boxes to voice themes that echo throughout the book. As the “final” text box states, “In an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed” (101). Bechdel provides a suggestive—but far from prescriptive—context for judging her father’s life and her own reactions, and this sort of context is quite helpful for writers who are still trying to learn academic discourse. The following is a writing question I use about Fun Home, one based loosely on the prompt that I use about The Dew Breaker:

One of the most pressing issues in contemporary society is that of being “silent.” What are some situations in which being “silent” develops into a complex ethical dilemma? Please refer to the choices of TWO or more people from Fun Home. How and why do they remain “silent?” What, if anything, do they reveal about their silence, how do they reveal it, and what conflicts arise from such revelations? Please make sure to refer to specific scenes or statements from Fun Home (and/or other texts you’ve read) and to explain their significance.

In this case, students have ample options besides projecting personal associations into the “gutters” of Fun Home. In academic terms, the students now have more than compelling visual imagery–they also have complex verbal contexts for the sort of investigation that one would hope they will engage in as they take Introduction to Literature. (Or as Spiegelman would say, they have “commix” to draw upon.) Whether the scenes from Bechdel rely on relatively straight-forward bits of narration or on more intertextual references, the students have a much fuller opportunity to write and to analyze, while also reading a very bold, timely and innovative text!

 “Deep Thinking” and Honest Questions

“There is no philosophical area that cannot potentially be given a graphic novel treatment” (49).
— from Jeff McLaughlin’s “Deep Thinking in Graphic Novels”

Perhaps I have wound up arguing that graphic novels are best at confronting ethical quandaries when they rely upon seemingly traditional fictional techniques such as dialogue and narration. If that does wind up to be the case, then that might prove to be unhelpful, since there are not many graphic novelists who use the densely allusive verbal references and echoes of Fun Home.8 Of course, those who prefer to use traditional prose texts in a Literature course can find ample support for that choice. One might start with Mark Kingwell’s claim that “On Cartesian principles, we cannot directly know the mind of another; but words printed on a page give us the best possible chance at coming close, better even than interacting with others” (5; italics added). It would seem obvious that graphic artists would soundly reject this premise, and the scholarly articles cited earlier generally presume that this notion of “the best possible chance” is exactly what graphic artists are trying to usurp. However, I was surprised by a comment from Scott McCloud about “gutters” and “closure.” As he states, “Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between the creator and audience” (69; italics added) Consider the various “gutters” that were discussed above. When Tosha turns to face the children, when Marjane sits silently in a jail cell, when David withdraws into his own drawings, when Alison’s attempt to speak is met with “Snort!,” there surely is an “intimacy” created. What can one say about moments? As Kingwell reminds us, this question may be merely speculative, since directly “knowing the mind” of another simply can’t happen. Yet we can at least glimpse a tentative map of that interior by reading what our students write, and if they can’t write much about Tosha’s last thoughts, for example, then perhaps that “intimacy” remains hesitant and amorphous; it is often one based primarily on personal assumptions rather than textual analysis.

What then might teachers keep in mind as we ask students to write about situations that demand a consideration of ethical issues while also denying readers many of the narrative techniques (such as dialogue, omniscient narration, interior monologue, allusion, etc…) that they may expect to find? If readers, especially those who may be still learning the basics of college-level academic discourse, must rely instead on a great deal of inference based on non-verbal cues, then what are some possible compromises that arise, and how might teachers work through these compromises? It might seem to be petty and even self-defeating to raise such challenges when I’ve already decided that graphic novels have much to contribute to the study of reading and writing–of course, one could just settle for the obvious disclaimer that there is no form/genre that lends itself to all types of writing assignments. Yet in discussions among fans and scholars of graphic novels, there remain nagging doubts, and students surely are not shy about sharing their own suspicions. During the sequence of lessons on Maus, I ask them to do an in-class assignment based on Daniel Correia’s article “A Novel Idea,” in which he asks students and teachers at the University of California at Santa Cruz for their thoughts about reading graphic novels in Literature courses. Most of the article’s commentators are supportive, and some of them even read graphic novels as their own academic declarations of independence. The students are also quick to note a section of the article in which a graduate student named David Namie expresses the reservations that he and some of his students had. As Correia explains:

“Namie admitted that his students found something lacking in the graphic novel he used for his course. ‘Although there wasn’t resistance to the idea of reading a graphic novel, there was the feeling that something wasn’t there,’ Namie said. ‘Students expect more substance or something more intellectual from traditional texts like Wuthering Heights.’” (4)

There are usually a few critical students who agree with him, but the obvious problem is that claims about “something lacking” or “something wasn’t there” or “something more intellectual” can sound suspiciously like the disengaged comments given by someone who doesn’t care for cricket or rap. I am not trying to shame Namie or my students here—I have been fumbling around with my own phrasing for awhile as well. So I have arrived at the tentative conclusion that this absent “something” is not about the five reasons that I mentioned at the beginning of the essay. It is not about literacy or identity or meta-narratives or visual culture or post-modernism–the elusive “something” seems to be the ethical dimensions of reading and writing about such texts.

For the many reasons that I outlined earlier, I will be teaching graphic novels again in ENG 30. I will keep in mind Jeff McLaughlin’s article, while also be questioning his basic assumption. There are fascinating things that one can find in the “gutters” of graphic texts, but a fully realized “examination of ethical issues” remains an elusive one. Of course, McLaughlin is careful to qualify his statement with the word “potentially”–and the “potential” of graphic novels to do so many others things is quite strong. When a graphic novel such as Fun Home allows for such a discussion, I will be glad to encourage it, but I will also be wary of assigning students to make such “examinations” of ethical dilemmas when I find myself having trouble doing so.

 

Endnotes

[1] Many writers and teachers have noted the inadequacy of this term. Many graphic “novels” are actually non-fiction memoirs, and others read more like novellas or short stories. Many have little similarity with more traditional definitions of the “novel.” Yet it remains the most commonly-used term to refer to texts such as Maus, so I will use it for convenience. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Hatfield, “Defining Comics.”

[2] For a basic review of literacy issues, see Schwarz, “Expanding Literacies.”

[3] More specialized uses of graphic novels can be found in MacDonald, “Hottest Section in the Library,” and Smetana, “Using Graphic Novels.” Also see Redford, “Graphic Novels Welcome Everyone,” and Gerde and Foster, “X-Men Ethics.”

[4] For an overview, try Aldama’s Multicultural Comics and Royal, “Introduction.” For more focused discussions, see Boatwright, “Graphic Journeys” and Squire, “So Long As They Grow Out of It.”

[5] McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a classic tour of these innovations. Also see Almond, “Deconstructed—Chris Ware’s Innovation.”

[6] Courses that analyze visual culture are proliferating. Simply google “CUNY courses on visual culture” for a sampling. See Drucker, Graphesis for broader contexts.

[7] See Roeder, “Looking High and Low”; Chute, “Comics as Literature.”

[8] Readers might try Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia or the obscure Gemma Bovary by Posey Simmonds or even Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss’ stunning graphic biography of Marie Curie. Of course there remains Alan Moore’s classic V for Vendetta, which has enough allusions and speeches to keep a graduate seminar busy. Moore’s Watchmen is even more complex, and gives preferences to long-winded dialogues rather than subtle silences; as a colleague once remarked to me, this text doesn’t have “gutters,” it has canyons of highly self-conscious prose interspersed among the graphic passages. Yet these texts are the exceptions, and many recent graphic novels are featuring less and less dialogue and/or interior monologue.

Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis, ed. Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle. U of Texas P, 2010. Print

Almond, Steve. “Deconstructed–Chris Ware’s Innovation.” New Republic 13 (Dec. 2012): 1-3. Print.

Amicucci, Ann. N. et al. “‘You are asking me to do more than just read a book’: Student Reading in a General Literature Course.” The CEA Forum 44, 1 (Winter/Spring 2015): 1-29. Print.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Boatright, Michael D. “Graphic Journeys: Graphic Novels’ Representations of Immigrant Experiences.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 53 (March 2010): 468–476. Print.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature: Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA 123, 2 (2008): 452–465. Print.

Program in Narrative Medicine. Columbia University Medical Center. www.sps.columbia.edu/narrative-medicine. Accessed 15 Jan. 2016.

Correia, Daniel. 2007. “A Novel Idea.” City on a Hill Press www.cityonahillpress.com/2007/02/08/a-novel-idea. Accessed 20 Dec. 2015.

Dandicat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. Vintage, 2004. Print.

Drucker, Joanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Harvard UP. 2014. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies. Routledge, 1996. Print.

Gerde, Virginia W. and R. Spencer Foster. “X-Men Ethics: Using Comic Books to Teach Business Ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 77, No. 3 (Feb., 2008): 245-258. Print

“Getting Graphic: Using Graphic Novels in the Language Arts Classroom.” http://gettinggraphic.weebly.com/index.html. Accessed 12 Aug 2014.

Hatfield, Charles. “Defining Comics in the Classroom.” Teaching the Graphic Novel. Stephen E. Tabachnick, ed. Modern Language Association, 2009. Print.

MacDonald, Heidi. “How Graphic Novels Became the Hottest Section in the Library.” www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/57093-how-graphic-novels-became-the-hottest-section-in-the-library.html. 3 May 2013. Web.

McCloud, Scott. “Blood in the Gutter.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper, 1993. Print.

McLaughlin, Jeff. “Deep Thinking in Graphic Novels.” The PhilosophersMagazine Vol. 60 (2013): 44-50. Web.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Compassionate Citizenship.” Commencement Address. Georgetown University. http://www.humanity.org/voices/commencements/martha-nussbaum-georgetown-university-speech-2003. Accessed 15 Aug. 2014.

Redford, Kyle. “Graphic Novels Welcome Everyone into the Reading Conversation.” The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. http://dyslexia.yale.edu/EDU_GraphicNovels.html. Accessed 25 Aug 2014.

Roeder, Katherine. “Looking High and Low at Comic Art.” American Art. 22, 1 (Spring 2008): 2-9. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Rothfork, John. “Post-Modern Ethics: Richard Rorty and Michael Polanyi.” Southern Humanities Review 29.1 (1995): 15-48. Print.

Royal, Derek Parker. “Introduction: Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative.” MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) 32 (2007): 1-16. Print.

Schwarz, Gretchen. “Expanding Literacies Through Graphic Novels.” The English Journal 95 (2006): 58-64. Print.

Small, David. Interview. amazon.com. Accessed 15 Jan 2016.

David.Smetana, Linda et al. “Using Graphic Novels in the High School Class: Engaging Deaf Students with a New Genre.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (2009): 228–240.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivors Tale. Pantheon, 1986. Print

Speigelman., Art. Meta-Maus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic. Pantheon, 2011. Print.

Squier, Susan. “So Long as They Grow Out of It: Comics, the Discourse of Developmental Normalcy, and Disability.” Journal of Medical Humanities 29 (2008): 71-88. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Back Bay Books, 2006. Print.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Author Bio

Gene McQuillan is a Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College (the City University of New York) where he has taught since 1993. His writings and teaching have often focused on various forms of non-fiction, and he has published articles on travelogues, natural history, memoirs, and graphic novels. He has also published a series of articles on contemporary narratives about the Human Genome Project. In 2006, he served as the President of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/Culture Association (MAPACA). He is currently the co-facilitator of a FIG (Faculty Interest Group) at KCC that focuses on “Graphic Novels, Cartoons, and Comics.”

Reference Citation

MLA
McQuillan, Gene. “Looking in the ‘Gutter’ for Ethical Questions: Reading and Writing about Graphic Novels.” 2018. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy vol 5. no 1. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/considering-ethical-questions-in-nonfiction-reading-and-writing-about-graphic-novels/

APA
McQuillan, G. (2018) Looking in the ‘gutter’ for ethical questions: Reading and writing about graphic novels. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/considering-ethical-questions-in-nonfiction-reading-and-writing-about-graphic-novels/

“This Cabal Guy Could Be Right”: Numeric Correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning

Leonard Vandegrift
Cal Poly Pomona
Pomona, California, USA
lkvandegrift@cpp.edu

Abstract

The study of gematria and isopsephy, the numeric conversion of Hebrew and Greek words, yields an abundant harvest of biblical insight. Though applying this method to more secular literature is rare, we have a unique set of circumstances in Maury Yeston’s musical In the Beginning that renders its use appropriate. Derived from Hebrew and Greek, the names of the show’s principal characters can be converted to numeric values, all of which share at least one of three common factors. Moreover, the names are often connected thematically, and their factors reflect key elements in the first five books of the Bible.

Along with contributions from fellow collaborators Larry Gelbart and David Hahn, Yeston appears to be the most likely candidate to have included these numeric features, the intention of which is expressed in the words of the antagonist Romer, who draws particular attention to Kabbalah’s use of numbers: “There is something about the number forty. This Cabal guy could be right” (2.4.65; emphasis added). The character only skims the surface of the number 40’s implications and misses entirely the deeper meanings that further reflection offers, but having drawn some attention to the matter, the script seems to have left the question open for any observant director, performer, or audience member familiar with such things and with sufficient interest to investigate further. In the case of this article’s author, his background in theatre, literary criticism, and gematria provided the key to unlock a rich subtext of the writing that until now had lain otherwise dormant and awaiting discovery.

Keywords: Gematria, Isopsephy, Number, Numeric Value, Standard Value, Ordinal Value, In the Beginning, Hebrew, Greek, Musical Theatre

Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning has been described as a work in progress that is not yet ready for a Broadway stage. One critic holding such an opinion is Richard Connema who says the show is better suited for regional theatre. However, Connema also compliments certain aspects of the production he saw at the Willows in 2000:

Mr. Yeston has fashioned an old fashion Broadway musical with toe tapping songs, romantic ballets (sic), songs of hope, and vaudeville routines . . . The score does have some beautiful romantic songs . . . “Till the End of Time” . . . is lovely[,] and . . . “No Man’s as Wonderful” . . . is one of the most memorable moments of the show.

Most of Connema’s praise is reserved for the music and represents the view of much of the industry. Stephen Sondheim, for instance, named “New Words” one of “the songs he wishes he had written himself” (Pogrebin E1). Likewise, in an interview with Pat Cerasaro, Yeston says that Alan Jay Lerner decided to mentor him on the merits of that song alone, and in a review of The Maury Yeston Songbook, Matthew Murray declares that “You’re There, Too” is “perhaps the most perfect expression of Yeston’s talent . . .” Consequently, most admiration for the show is based on its score.

Not so much ado, however, has been made over the book, which was originally drafted by Larry Gelbart and later revised by David Hahn. Speaking about a 2001 production, which included Hahn’s revisions, Connema admits to being somewhat entertained by the writing: “There is some good material here with zingers and corny routines.” Less amused, however, is Albert Williams, who flatly states of the History Loves Company iteration, “. . . what [the show] sorely lacks right now is a good book.” Though Yeston does not address the writing per se, he does classify the show as one of his “misses.” In the interview with Cerasaro, he attributes the show not being Broadway-ready to very talented people not sharing a common vision. Citing Peter Stone, he says,

“the reason shows don’t click sometimes is because everyone on the team at the same time isn’t necessarily doing the same show.” I think that’s very true. That would be true of a number things. Well, in that particular show I think we all wanted to get a very funny take on the Bible. I think everyone just wasn’t on the same page in terms of the tone of the show.

Yeston’s sentiments are reflected in Hahn’s comments about the book, which foretell the show’s enduring struggles to be deemed Broadway-worthy: “No one has ever left a musical saying, ‘Wow! What a book!’ . . . You never hum the book. But if a musical doesn’t work, you blame the book” (Price 2E).

Despite Yeston’s brilliant compositions, Gelbart’s mastery of comic writing, and Hahn’s worthy efforts at revision, we can rely on the critics’ assessment that In the Beginning is not yet ready for Broadway success and requires further work before it can be received as a truly great show. There are, however, reasons to reconsider its status as a “miss,” primarily due to a book that never measured up to the score. In fact, there is evidence of something concealed in the text that evokes the themes of the show in a way that is entirely unlooked for. This becomes clear when we apply two methods. Commonly employed in the interpretation of literature, the first is to analyze the meanings of characters’ names, most of which are derived from either Hebrew or Greek in this case, and then consider how they correlate thematically. The second is used in biblical interpretation and involves calculating the numeric values of each Hebrew or Greek name using gematria or ispopsephy and then considering any correlations between the factors thereof. In the end, the application of these methods will reveal that the show, while not exactly Broadway-ready, has received somewhat short shrift critically and merits more consideration as a piece of theatre that has not been fully understood or appreciated.

The Fundamentals of Letters and Their Numeric Values

Analyzing the meanings of names in fiction and how they might represent certain themes is a common practice in interpreting literature. However, as part of such an analysis, using gematria and isopsephy—that is, converting Hebrew and Greek names and words to numeric expressions, noting any common factors between them, and deriving meaning from such correspondences—is rare outside biblical exegesis. Still, the textual conditions present in In the Beginning are ideal for viewing the show through such a lens as most of the characters’ names are derived from the biblical languages. While the use of these methods does not necessarily lead to a final judgment on which interpretations of the story are exclusively true, we can see with a high degree of certainty how particular interpretations have their foundations in the numeric values that sets and subsets of names share.

To arrive at a firmer understanding of how these values are determined, we need to review the foundations of gematria and isopsephy. As most of the characters’ names are Hebrew in origin, a Hebrew alphabet and numeric values table is included below.

Table 1

Numeric Values of the Hebrew Alphabeta

Name Letter Standard Ordinal Name Letter Standard Ordinal
Aleph א 1 1 Lamed ל 30 12
Bet ב 2 2 Mem מ 40 13
Gimel ג 3 3 Nun נ 50 14
Dalet ד 4 4 Samekh ס 60 15
Heh ה 5 5 Ayin ע 70 16
Vav ו 6 6 Pey פ 80 17
Zayin ז 7 7 Tsadi צ 90 18
Chet ח 8 8 Quf ק 100 19
Tet ט 9 9 Resh ר 200 20
Yod י 10 10 Shin ש 300 21
Kaph כ 20 11 Tav ת 400 22

Source: Alter, Michael J. Why the Torah Begins with the Letter Beit. Aronson, 1998, p. 8.
Munk, Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. Mesorah, 2010, p. 42.
Reproduced from The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Michael L. Munk with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
a. Those interested in the Greek alphabet and the corresponding values of each letter may refer to the appendix.

As reflected in the numeric value columns above, each of the 22 Hebrew letters has standard and ordinal values assigned to it. In the case of standard values, letters are assigned numbers based on succeeding decimal places increasing from ones to tens to hundreds. In the case of ordinal values, the numbers assigned reflect the placement of the letter within the alphabet. With this in mind, consider the following example of how Hebrew words and their numeric values combine to produce insights and interpretations that go well beyond the simple meaning of the words themselves.

Table 2

Words Numerically Equivalent to the Word for God

Name/Word Hebrew Translation Standard Ordinal
El אֵל God 31 13
Al אַל‭ ‬ No/Not 31 13
Lo’ לֹא No/Not 31 13

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 387; p. 3773.

In the first row, we see the word for “God” transliterated in English and spelled in Hebrew. Likewise, we see that the standard value is van-hebrew-equations-1 and the ordinal is van-hebrew-equations-2. By looking at the two values together, we recognize that the word’s standard and ordinal values are numeric reflections of each other as the first calculates to 31 and the second to 13. We may also note that both are prime.

If we consider this word and its numeric values in light of other Hebrew words that have the same values, we begin to see connections between them that would not otherwise be apparent. In the case of those listed, when we reflect on how they relate, we are struck by the synchronicities among them. As the Hebrew words for “no” and “not” have exactly the same standard and ordinal values as the word for “God,” we may conclude that, without God, there is only negation, and no one and nothing can exist outside the context of a divine creator.

Gematria and isopsephy are esoteric means of interpreting the Bible and not widely employed. Such methods are even more rare for interpreting texts originated in English. In the case of In the Beginning, however, we have a unique set of circumstances in which most of the principal characters have been given Hebrew or Greek names. Therefore, we are able to calculate both their standard and ordinal values and determine whether any numeric relationships exist. In some cases, we can even translate a name from one biblical language to another, calculate its value, and note numeric correspondences. After converting all the names into numbers, we find that each value can be derived using 11, 13, or 40 as a factor. As Yeston, Gelbart, and Hahn all contributed to the work, it is difficult to surmise exactly which character was named by whom, but the fact that all ten names correspond numerically indicates that this feature of the text is intentional.

Yeston’s influence on the text seems very likely as he has the appropriate educational background to use gematria as described. As Mary Kalfatovic reveals in Contemporary Musicians, Yeston attended Hebrew school in his youth, and his grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue (251). She also says he taught religion at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (252). Additionally, Sarah Douglas, the vice president of Abram Artists Agency, writes in private email correspondence, “It is perhaps not generally known that Mr. Yeston attended an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva for the first 10 years of his education—learning the Hebrew and English alphabets simultaneously at the age of 5. That education did indeed include Biblical studies, Commentary, Mishnah, Gemmorah, folklore, a smattering of Gemmatria and all other manner of Hebraic learnedness.” Gelbart and Hahn possibly contributed to naming the characters, too, but there is little evidence to suggest that they had the requisite background to coordinate the names numerically. In fact, just three principal characters retained their original names from Gelbart’s initial draft to Hahn’s final—that is, Avi, Arielle, and Romer (Dietz 338; Williams; Martin H10). During the intervening years, only Yeston remained a constant on the project as its creative team changed from production to production and its characters developed in the revision process (Dietz 338; Williams; Martin H10).

The Number 13

We will begin this analysis with the names of characters whose values either equal 13 or are multiples thereof as they provide the thematic foundation on which the rest of the story is based. There may be more than one interpretation of how these characters correlate, but the evidence is strong that they have been named according to certain themes. The names, along with their values and factors, are summarized in the following table.

Table 3

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 13 as a Factor

Name Hebrew Translation Value Factors
Avi אָבִי My Father 13 13 x 1
Ben בֵּֽן Son 52 13 x 4
Zymah זִמָּה Wickedness 52 13 x 4
Romer/Romaa רומא Rome 247 13 x 19

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1467; p. 1481; p. 1495.
Waldstein, A. S. English-Hebrew Dictionary. Mizpah, 1939, p. 443.
a. Though Romer serves as antagonist to Avi’s protagonist, he fits the discussion best in the sections covering the numbers 11 and 40.

It may be too much to hope that a direct relationship exists between all names that share the same factor. However, many of the characters’ names seem to have been chosen based on both their meaning and numeric correspondence. Perhaps the best examples are Ben and Avi. On the one hand, we note the thematic connection in that the former’s name means “Son” and the latter’s “My Father.” On the other, we see the numeric association (Avi = 13 x 1 and Ben = 13 x 4). Taken together, the two correspondences are compelling features of the text that suggest a conscious decision in storytelling (see fig. 1).

Van-1

Fig. 1. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Avi, Ben, Zymah, Romer, and Leviticus 16.10

Even correlations within the biblical literature can be called on to support the conclusion that gematria was used to select character names. In the case of Avi, who is hiding his true identity as Cain, we find a correlation with Genesis 4.1: “And she conceived and bore Cain…” (The Interlinear Bible). If we calculate the value of this passage, we find it is a multiple of 13 (or 13 x 124 = 1,612). Also, Cain’s genealogy calculates to 2,223 (or 13 x 171) (see table 4).

Table 4

The Cain Line of Names

Name Value
Adam 45
Cain 160
Enoch 84
Irad 284
Mehujael 95
Methushael 777
Lamech 90
Jabal 42
Jubal 48
Tubal Cain 598
Total  13 x 171 = 2,223

Source: Bullinger, Ethelbert W. Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance. Martino, 2011, p. 207.

As the number 13 is so well represented in the record of Cain’s birth and genealogy, the name “Avi,” which calculates to 13, seems a fitting alias.

Understanding the numeric connection between Avi and Cain, as well as between Avi and Ben, helps us also see Avi’s connection to Zymah, the character representing God. Like Ben, Zymah’s name calculates to 52 (or 13 x 4). As the Hebrew word from which the name Zymah derives means “Wickedness,” diverse opinions on the authorial intent behind the name could be offered. On the surface, one might wonder if the name is meant to express a Gnostic view of the Old Testament God—that is, the Demiurge that created matter, which, according to Gnostic thought, was inherently evil (MacRae 258; Powell 230). This is possible, but the use of gematria, combined with Romer’s assertion that “[t]his Cabal guy could be right,” suggests a more direct relationship to Kabbalistic tradition than an indirect one to Gnosticism (2.4.65). Also, while Kabbalah does parallel Gnostic doctrines, it does not go so far as to accept the premise that matter was produced from an evil source (Ginzberg 477).

A more consistent view is that, like Avi, Zymah himself is a scapegoat who bears the “wickedness” of immature humanity as represented by the members of the tribe. In fact, this interpretation can be supported both numerically and thematically. In Leviticus 16.10, we read the following: “And the goat [ha sa`iyr] on which the lot for a scapegoat [`aza’zel] fell shall be caused to stand living before Jehovah to make atonement by it, to send it away for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” The Hebrew word for “the goat” calculates to 585 (or 13 x 45) (see fig. 1). Also, though not a multiple of 13, we find that both the name Cain and the Hebrew word for “scapegoat” calculate to the ordinal value 43.

We can see a clear connection between the number 13, the theme of the scapegoat, and how they apply specifically to Avi/Cain, but how exactly do they relate to Zymah? The answer is to be found in Romer and Lydia’s frequent refrain of who is to blame for their misfortunes, a question invariably followed by Zymah’s appearance or a veiled reference to him. Below are instances in which this is employed most clearly:

  1. After being expelled from the garden, Romer says, “I want to know whose fault it was” (1.3.11). Lydia and the group point to Adam, Eve, and the serpent when Zymah enters with the intention of teaching the tribe to hunt and gather.
  2. In the flood aftermath, Lydia asks, “Who’s [sic] fault is it?” (1.8.37). After some tribal infighting and delusion about the garden returning, Zymah appears again, this time to teach them the principles of agriculture.
  3. During the drought scene, Romer superstitiously identifies Avi’s son as the cause of the tribe’s suffering. Sarcastically, Ben responds by leading the group in their ritual chant: “Avi’s fault. Avi’s fault” (1.10.48). If we refer back to the translation of Avi’s name, we see the pattern with Zymah repeated: “My Father’s fault. My Father’s fault.”

On the one hand, we see how Avi represents Zymah, the Father of All Things, and the responsibility he shoulders for the tribe’s welfare. On the other, we observe Avi perverting this responsibility into blame and unconsciously shifting it from Zymah to himself when he indicates that Romer may be right (1.10.48). Because he believes the group’s suffering is a direct result of God’s judgment on him, Avi offers himself as a scapegoat, providing for their desire to blame someone for the troubles they experience along the path to maturity. The scenes cited above reinforce the various associations discussed in that Avi (13 x 1) represents Zymah (13 x 4). Likewise, both take on the role of “the goat” (13 x 45) assigned to bear the collective guilt of others (see fig. 1).

When Avi and Zymah appear alone together in the final act, their identification with each other is completed and theatrically most obvious. In this moment, Avi realizes who Zymah is and, recognizing he is quite literally “meeting his maker,” prepares to be struck dead. When Zymah corrects his assumption on this, Avi explains his reason for thinking it in the first place:

AVI. You already took everything I love.

Upon hearing this, Zymah denies taking responsibility for Avi’s misfortune and reverses the running theme of bearing such burdens for others:

ZYMAH. I took? Well, I like that. Romer blackmailed you and you caved in. How does

that become my fault? You want your son and your wife, go fight for them. (2.8.75)

Avi’s persisting belief that he is being punished for his crime against Abel is revealed to be an unjust scapegoating of God. It is during this conversation that Avi finally realizes Arielle is justified in her faith that all things have a purpose and it is his responsibility to finish strong in the life he has been blessed with, despite his past wrongdoing.

The Number 11

If the evidence informing these interpretations ended with the foregoing correspondences, the results could be coincident. However, what we have seen is only the beginning, so please consider the following as further evidence of authorial intent.

Table 5

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 11 as a Factor

Name Hebrew/Greek Translation Value Factors
Lydia/Lud לוּד Strife 22 (ord)a 11 x 2
Arielle אֲרִיאֵל Lion of God/Jerusalem 242 11 x 22
Zeke/Zechariah זְכַרְיָה The LORD Remembers 242 11 x 22
Dottie/Da’ati דַּעְתִּיb My Knowledge 484 11 x 44
Romer/Rhomaios Ῥωμαῖος Roman 1,221 11 x 111

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1476; p. 1491; p. 1495; p. 1519; p. 1641.

a. Ordinal values are distinguished by the abbreviation ord.

b. This spelling of Da’ati may be found in Proverbs 22.17 with particular attention to the Masoretic Text (MT).

The set in Table 5 can easily be subdivided according to character relationship (e.g., Zeke and Dottie). In other cases, such relationships are not immediately apparent but, nonetheless, present. For instance, Arielle’s and Zeke’s values are identical (11 x 22 = 242). This suggests that Arielle, whose name means “Lion of God” and refers to the city of Jerusalem (Isa. 29.1-2), is in some way related to Zeke, whose full name Zechariah means “The LORD Remembers.” These characters rarely interact, so the identical values of their names seem at first coincident. However, further investigation into the characters, as well as into the themes that emerge through them, reveals much.

Both, for instance, are staunch advocates of Avi. While Romer and Lydia continuously blame him for the tribe’s suffering, Arielle and Zeke repeatedly demonstrate their trust in him. Arielle, for example, seems to see Avi as more than just himself, apparently perceiving the divine through him. On the one hand, her song “Is Someone Out There” foreshadows Avi’s imminent advent onto the scene. On the other, we are keenly aware that she is yearning to understand herself and the world outside the context of the garden. She wants to know if someone transcending her physical experience is guiding events and if she can depend on that someone now that the garden and its low-hanging fruit are gone. Avi’s introduction to the story appears to answer these questions on some level, and Arielle seems vaguely aware that he represents a response to her previous petition to the unknown “Someone Out There.” Perhaps seeing Avi as a pledge of her initial act of faith, Arielle becomes more and more convinced that there is a divine purpose to the group’s trials, never losing faith that this purpose is for their benefit. Therefore, even when learning that Avi is Cain, she continues to see the good in him, apparently looking past his recently revealed identity to what he represents on a divine level.

Zeke demonstrates a level of trust similar to Arielle’s. Though his lines are few, he spends a good number of them defending Avi and his judgment. When Avi is first introduced to the tribe, for instance, Zeke immediately requests that he join them, setting off a heated debate over whether he should be included (1.5.23). In other examples, Zeke seconds Avi’s aversion to following the people of Abraham into Egypt (1.10.49), and when Romer begins to blame Avi for the tribe being sealed in an Egyptian tomb, Zeke jumps to his defense (2.2.61). Even after learning Avi is actually Cain returning with the Ten Commandments, or what Romer perceives to be only a bag of broken rocks, Zeke counters that they are rocks “with writing on them” (2.9.77).

In addition to trust, another thematic connection between Zeke and Arielle exists. Bearing the name of the “eleventh” minor prophet, Zeke seemingly takes on such an office when seeking answers through Arielle on two occasions. On the first, he asks the reason for the drought (1.10.48). On the second, he inquires how crossing the Jordan is different from the tribe’s previous wanderings, a question echoed by others as well (2.9.79). These examples of inquiring through the medium of Arielle, who represents Jerusalem, very much parallel a prophet making inquiries at the house of God.

Finally, a curious correlation with the biblical literature should be considered in the case of Arielle and Zeke. While “Arielle” is used as another name for the city of Jerusalem, it also refers to one of the exiles returning from the Babylonian captivity as recorded in Ezra 8.16: “And I sent for Eliezer, for Ariel, for Shemaiah, and for Elnathan, and for Jarib, and for Elnathan, and for Nathan, and for Zechariah, and for Meshullam, head men; also for Joiarib, and for Elnathan, men of understanding (emphasis added).” There are several curious points about this passage. First, the list includes the names of both characters under observation. What compounds this curiosity is that the name Ariel appears only six times in scripture—five times in Isaiah 29, referring to Jerusalem, and once in Ezra 8, referring to one of the chief men. Were Ariel’s and Zeke’s names selected from this list because their values are identical and the only two that factor to 11? The fact that there are also exactly eleven men named and that the entire passage totals to a multiple of 11 (11 x 511 = 5,621) suggests that someone was indeed aware and meticulously selected these names for thematic purposes (see fig. 2).

Van-2

Fig. 2. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Arielle, Zeke, Dottie, Romer, Lydia, and Ezra 8.16

As multiples of 11, the values of Romer’s and Lydia’s names are not as closely aligned as those of Arielle and Zeke. However, they bear special recognition. Romer means “Roman” in German (Martini 352). In Greek, “Roman” is translated as Rhomaios and has a numeric value of 1,221 (or 11 x 111). The Greek name Lydia corresponds to the Hebrew name Lud, which has an ordinal value of 22 (or 11 x 2). In both languages, the meaning of her name is similar (“Strife” in Hebrew and “Travail” in Greek).

Allegorically, Romer and Lydia’s relationship seems to parallel that of the western and eastern regions of the Roman Empire. Lydia was a kingdom in the ancient world whose borders were within what is now the modern state of Turkey.  In antiquity, it eventually became a province of the Persian and Greek Empires and was finally bequeathed to Rome by the last king of the Attalid dynasty (Herodotus 51; Freeman xvi-xvii; Allen 84).  In other words, the Attalid Kingdom, which seems related to the character Lydia, was legally transferred to Rome, which is clearly represented by Romer.  The ease with which Romer acquires Lydia as his wife parallels Rome’s acquisition of the Attalid Kingdom and stands in direct contrast to the resistance he faces in Arielle, who represents Judea’s capital city Jerusalem struggling bitterly to remain an independent state married to God.

These interpretations can be extended to include the Christian conversion of Rome, too. In the final scene, Romer claims the Ten Commandments as “Romer’s Rules” (2.9.79). On the one hand, he seems to undergo a kind of conversion to Avi’s (or “My Father’s”) code of ethics. On the other, he supplants the Father and declares the code his own. Just as papal Rome is often accused of usurping God’s position, Romer seems ready to supersede Zymah and his chosen agent Avi and to use the Commandments for his own personal gain.

This reading is further supported by the Romer-Lydia connection. Thematically, Romer has obvious ties to Rome, including its imperial and papal manifestations. Less obvious, however, is Lydia’s relationship to Rome ecclesiastically. During the imperial period, the region once named after the former kingdom of Lydia and ultimately given to Rome came to be known as Asia Minor and included the seven churches mentioned in Revelation (1.4). The part the region played in church history provides a clear connection between Lydia and the churches most important during the apostolic period.

Later in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Following his defeat of Licinius and becoming sole emperor, he united the western half of the empire with the eastern (MacMullen 138). As a result, Rome in the West (as represented by Romer) was united with Asia Minor in the East (as represented by Lydia). In so doing, both formed a political and ecclesiastical corpus that would dominate most of the known world, a development very much reflected in the ambitions of the tribe’s power-couple, Romer and Lydia.

The Number 40

The final value addressed in this paper is 40. This value is explicitly highlighted in the text when Romer says, “There is something about the number forty. This Cabal guy could be right. I mean, the flood was forty days and forty nights. It’s been forty years in the desert. And Moses has been up on that mountain for how long? Forty days and forty nights. There’s something fishy in it” (2.4.65). The fact that Romer invokes the number 40 as one invested with Kabbalistic implications strongly supports the view that the characters’ names have been selected because they correlate numerically. In light of this, consider the following names, all of which either calculate to 40 or are multiples thereof.

Table 6

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 40 as a Factor

Name Hebrew/Greek Translation Value Factors
Lydia/Lud לוּד Strife 40 40 x 1
Romer/Roma רומא Rome 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Aaron אַהֲרֹן a Light Bringer 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Mavis Μαβής Purple 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Cain קַיִן Possession 160 40 x 4
Ben/Huios υἱός Son 680 40 x 17

Source: Spilias, Thanasis. Greek Phrasebook and Dictionary. Edited by Brigitte Ellemor, 5th ed., Lonely Planet, 2013, p. 229.
Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1469; p. 1519; p. 1561; p. 1650.
Waldstein, A. S. English-Hebrew Dictionary. Mizpah, 1939, p. 443.

a. This particular spelling of Aaron may be found in Numbers 16.50 (MT).

Here we see a much closer connection between Lydia (as represented by the standard value of her Hebrew name Lud) and Romer (as represented by the ordinal value of his namesake “Rome” spelled in Hebrew). The fact that “Rome” calculates to 40 speaks directly to Romer’s conclusion that there is “something fishy in it” (2.4.65). Practically all the examples he lists of the number evoke cataclysm, judgment, and testing, a common understanding of how the number is applied biblically. This is ironic as Romer and Lydia themselves are so often the agents of trouble, whether they are oppressing the tribe in the town, which is ultimately washed away by the flood, or leading them to Egypt, where they are all enslaved.

In fact, Romer and Lydia’s destructiveness is mirrored in Avi’s alter ego Cain, so it is not surprising that the name Cain is also a multiple of 40. And yet, we can see Arielle’s purpose even in Cain’s fall when we realize that the standard value of his name correlates with the ordinal value of Aaron. In the first act, Avi (“My Father”) brings Aaron (“Light Bringer”) into the tribe. In the second, a reformed Cain brings them the light of Torah (see fig. 3). In the numeric correlation between the names “Cain” and “Aaron” then, we see that the number 40 is not confined to expressing simply trial and testing, but also two other themes—that of bringing forth children through the bodies of their parents and bringing forth good fruit through a spirit governed by God.

Van-3

Fig. 3. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Lydia, Romer, Ben, Mavis, Cain, Aaron, and Exodus 20.3-17

For one, the theme of bringing forth children is expressed by 40 in that the number reflects the average length of pregnancy in terms of weeks. Likewise, the Talmud applies the number to the 40th day of gestation, which marks the transition to fetal viability, whereas prior to this, “the semen . . . is only a mere fluid” (The Babylonian Talmud, b. Yev. 69b). Therefore, the number 40 is understood as applying to the duration of time leading to something brought into being, whether an embryo on its 40th day, a newborn in its 40th week, or even a nation in its 40th year.

Moreover, when we reflect on the fact that Ben (“Son”) and Avi (“My Father”) are thematically connected to birth and that Ben’s name in Greek (Huios) and Avi’s original name Cain share the factor of 40, we are all the more impressed with such authorial attention to detail. Even with these realizations, however, we do not appreciate the fuller scope of this vision until we recognize that the number 13 is connected to 40. In other words, the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Mem and has a standard value of 40. With this in mind, compare the following names and factors in the table below.

Table 7

Avi/Cain and Ben

Name Factors Name Factors
Avi 13 x 1 Cain 40 x 4
Ben (Hebrew) 13 x 4 Ben (Greek) 40 x 17

Here we see that Ben, whose name means “Son,” and Avi, whose name means “My Father” and who is otherwise known as Cain, share the factors 13 and 40. This correlation not only punctuates the relationship between the two characters’ names, but also further develops the theme of begetting and birth (see fig. 4).

Van-4

Fig. 4. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Ben, Avi, Cain, and Mem (13th letter in Hebrew with a standard value of 40)

The related theme of bringing forth good fruit through a spirit governed by God is revealed when we consider how the use of the number 40 reflects the show’s literary progenitor—that is, the Bible and, more specifically, the Ten Commandments (see fig. 3). The original title of In the Beginning was 1–2–3–4–5 (Kalfatovic 253). In one sense, this sequence of numbers relates to the first five books of the Bible. However, its significance runs much deeper than this in that it suggests a factorial equation of all five numbers (i.e., 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120). The number 120 is divisible by 40 and can be read as a multiple thereof (40 x 3 = 120). With this in mind, we may recall that Moses lived until the age of 120 and his life was divided into three periods of 40 years each. At the age of 40, he fled Egypt (Acts 7.23; The Midrash, Ex. R. i.27), at 80 he returned to lead Israel out of bondage (Exod. 7.7), and at 120 he died (Deut. 34.7). This may seem just an interesting coincidence to some, but when we learn that the Ten Commandments themselves can be calculated using 40, 80, and 120 as factors, we discover a compelling numeric relationship between the Commandments (Exod. 20. 3-17) and the life of Moses. With this in mind, consider the following table, which accounts for the individual value of each commandment and the sum total.

Table 8

The Value of the Ten Commandments

Commandment Value
I 696
II 12,573
III 4,451
IV 17,303
V 2,783
VI 729
VII 562
VIII 486
IX 1,522
X 4,855
Total 45,960

Source: The Interlinear Bible. General Editor, Jay P. Green, Sr., 2nd ed., Hendrickson, 1985.
McGough, Richard. “The Holographic Decalogue.” The Bible Wheel, www.biblewheel.com/GR/GR_TenC.php. Accessed 14 Nov. 2014.

As a complete set, the Commandments may be divided by either 40 or 120; subdivided from I to III and IV to X, they may be divided by 40 and 80 respectively. The relevant factors and divisions are summarized in the following table.

Table 9

The Ten Commandments: Divisible by 40, 80, and 120

Commandments Factors Value
I-X 40 x 1,149 45,960
I-X 120 x 383 45,960
I-III 40 x 443 17,720
IV-X 80 x 353 28,240

 Source: McGough, Richard. “The Holographic Decalogue.” The Bible Wheel, www.biblewheel.com/GR/GR_TenC.php. Accessed 14 Nov. 2014.

The numeric significance of the Ten Commandments goes far deeper than what we can develop here. However, we can easily discern from the original title of the show read as a factorial equation, from the prevalence of 40 as a factor in certain characters’ names, and from Romer’s Kabbalistic invocation of the number that In the Beginning correlates with the Commandments and the life of Moses on a highly profound level.1 More specifically, we can see in Avi’s response to the Commandments a genuine conversion experience in which the spirit of a lost soul bears fruit once it becomes subject to the law of God.

A Possible Connection Between 11, 13, and 40

The foregoing evidence demonstrates how all the names of the principal characters are divided into sets sharing 11, 13, or 40 as a factor. Depending on whether names are calculated using standard or ordinal values, a name can fall into more than one of the numeric categories represented (e.g., the factors 11 and 40 are reflected in the ordinal and standard values of Lydia’s name in Hebrew).  Likewise, a similar correlation may be seen even in a translation of a name from one biblical language to another (e.g., the factors 13 and 40 are reflected in the standard values of the name Ben in Hebrew and its translation in Greek). Furthermore, the evidence shows how 13 and 40 are related and how certain characters’ names sharing both factors correlate with each other thematically (e.g., Avi/Cain and Ben share both factors and reflect the themes of begetting and birth).

However, can a case be made which ties 11, 13, and 40 together? It may be that there is a connection between the Ten Commandments and God’s very first commandment to humanity in Genesis 1.28: “. . . and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply . . .” The value of the verb phrase “Be fruitful” (p’ru) is 286 (or 2 x 11 x 13), and that of “multiply” (r’vu) is 208 (or 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 13). Consequently, we see the role that the numbers 11 and 13 play in God’s very first commandment in Genesis. Moreover, the sum of 11 and 13 is 24, which represents the product of the factorial equation preceding 5! = 120. That is, 24 is the product of the sequence 1 x 2 x 3 x 4, while 120 is the product of the sequence multiplied by the next factorial number 5. If we reflect on the significance of this, we can see that God’s first commandment, which is expressed by 4! = 24 (or 11 + 13), precedes his commandments to Israel, which are expressed by 5! = 120 (or 40 x 3). Accordingly, these numeric correlations interconnect in ways that help tie In the Beginning to its original source of inspiration—God’s commandments to humanity in general and to Israel in particular.

Conclusion

Despite being an esoteric means of expounding on musical theatre, interpreting In the Beginning in such a way reveals a kind of hidden wisdom locked inside what is so often deemed an unremarkable book. While the show would almost certainly benefit from another revision and further workshopping, seeing these numeric and thematic correlations helps us expand our appreciation beyond the score so as to include certain features of the writing that have been otherwise unobserved. The fact that all the principal characters’ names in In the Beginning can be grouped into at least one of three numeric categories is compelling. Likewise, evidence of thematic correlations between names that share common factors supports the conclusion that an elaborate subtextual framework has been built into the writing.

Under Yeston’s leadership, the creators have not simply lampooned the Bible, but developed, on one hand, a Mishnah of their own, and on another, a parallel set of scriptures. This blend of Mishnah and scripture includes not only narrative and psalm, but also underlying numeric strata that reflect the themes being developed. This effort is notable in that, even in the midst of its amusing dialogue, the text goes to great pains to mimic its literary parent’s more mystical qualities. The high degree of emulation evident in the writing, all the way down to the numeric foundations, belies a deep love for the original source material, even while the creators have sought to poke as much fun as possible in the process.

Appendix

Table 10

Numerical Values Ascribed to Greek Alphabet

Name

Letter

Value

Ordinal

Name

Letter

Value

Ordinal

Alpha

Α

1

1

Xi

Ξ

60

14

Beta

Β

2

2

Omicron

Ο

70

15

Gamma

Γ

3

3

Pi

Π

80

16

Delta

Δ

4

4

Qoppa

Ϙ

90

Epsilon

Ε

5

5

Rho

Ρ

100

17

Digamma

Ϝ

6

Sigma

Σ

200

18

Zeta

Ζ

7

6

Tau

Τ

300

19

Eta

Η

8

7

Upsilon

Υ

400

20

Theta

Θ

9

8

Phi

Φ

500

21

Iota

Ι

10

9

Chi

Χ

600

22

Kappa

Κ

20

10

Psi

Ψ

700

23

Lambda

Λ

30

11

Omega

Ω

800

24

Mu

Μ

40

12

Sampi

ϡ

900

Nu

Ν

50

13

Source: Barry, Kieren. The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetic Mysticism and Numerology in theAncient World. Weiser, 1999, pp. 206-207, table 2.
THE GREEK QABALAH © 1999 by Kieren Barry used with permission from Red Wheel Weiser, LLC Newbury Port, MA www.redwheelweiser.com

Bullinger, Ethelbert W. Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance. Martino, 2011, p. 49. 

Works Cited 

Allen, R. E. The Attalid Kingdom: A Constitutional History. Clarendon, 1983.

The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim. General editor, Isidore Epstein, vol. 1, Soncino, 1936.

Connema, Richard. Review of In the Beginning, by Maury Yeston. Talkin’ Broadway, [2000?] www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s72.html. Accessed 23 May 2016.

Dietz, Dan. Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007: Casts, Credits, Songs, Critical Reception and Performance Data of More Than 1,800 Shows. McFarland, 2010, p. 338.

Douglas, Sarah L. “Answer to Academic Question.” Received by George Roegler, 31 Oct. 2014.

Freeman, Philip. Alexander the Great. Simon, 2011.

Ginzberg, Louis. “Cabala.” The Jewish Encyclopedia. General editor, Isidore Singer, vol. 3, Funk, 1925, pp. 456-479.

Herodotus. The Histories of Herodotus. Edited by E. H. Blakeney, vol. 1, Dent, 1964.

The Interlinear Bible. General editor, Jay P. Green, Sr., 2nd ed., Hendrickson, 1985.

Kalfatovic, Mary. “Yeston, Maury.” Contemporary Musicians. Project editor, Luann Brennan, vol. 22, Gale, 1998, pp. 251-254.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. Dial, 1969.

MacRae, G. W. “Gnosticism.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia. General editor, Berard Marthaler, 2nd ed., vol. 6, Gale, 2003, pp. 255-261.

Martin, Douglas. “The Characters Don’t Know from Adam.” New York Times, 18 Dec. 1988, pp. H5+. Proquest, search.proquest.com/docview/110394114/90B92697AEA9470CPQ/1?accountid=10357.

Martini, Ursula, editor. “Roman.” German-English Dictionary. Barron’s, 2007, p. 352.

The Midrash: Exodus. General editors, H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, vol. 3, Soncino, 1951.

Murray, Matthew. Review of The Maury Yeston Songbook. Comp. Maury Yeston. TheatreMania, 11 Apr. 2011, http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/04-2003/the-maury-yeston-songbook_3344.html

Pogrebin, Robin. “A Song in His Psyche, As Hummable as Fame.” New York Times 19 May 2003: pp. E1+. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com/docview/92607131/241DBBFC1EDD4C67PQ/1?accountid=10357.

Powell, J. M. “Albingensias.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia. General editor, Berard Marthaler, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2003, pp. 229-231.

Price, Cathy Nelson. “MSMT’s Gift to Mainers: ‘A World Class Out-of-town Tryout.” Portland Press Herald 9 Aug. 1998, city ed.: p. 2E. Proquest, https://search.proquest.com/ docview/276882717/6B4D7D08DED54479PQ/1?accountid=10357

Strong, James. “Asia.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1596.

—. “Be fruitful.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1555.

—. “Goat.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1577.

—. “Multiply.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1564.

—. “Scapegoat.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1545.

—. “Travail.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1625.

Williams, Albert. Review of History Loves Company, by Maury Yeston, and Phantom, by Maury Yeston. Chicago Reader, 12 Sept. 1991. Sun-Times Media, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/history-loves-companyphantom/Content?oid=878234

Yeston, Maury. In the Beginning: The Greatest Story Never Told. MTI, 1998.

Yeston, Maury. Interview by Pat Cerasaro. “InDepth InterView: Maury Yeson – Part 1: Getting Tall.” Broadway World. Wisdom Digital Media, 2016, http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/InDepth-InterView-Maury-Yeston-Part-I-Getting-Tall-20100507-page2#

Endnotes

[1] The curious reader may wish to consult Richard McGough’s more involved calculations in “The HoloDec: Two Divisions of the Law” and “The HoloDec: The Spirit Shines” to see how the numbers 11 and 13 are also reflected in the Ten Commandments.

Author Bio

Leonard Vandegrift teaches composition, argument, and research in the English and Foreign Languages Department at Cal Poly Pomona and serves as program coordinator of the campus’ University Writing Center.  In his leisure time, Leonard has performed in various musicals and plays and pursued the study of gematria and isopsephy.  In 2014, he had the rare privilege of portraying Avi in a local production of In the Beginning, which ultimately led to the current study.

Reference Citation

MLA
Vandegrift, Leonard. “‘This Cabal Guy Could Be Right’: Numeric Correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/this-cabal-guy-could-be-right-numeric-correlations-in-maury-yestons/

APA
Vandegrift, L. (2018). “This Cabal guy could be right”: Numeric correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/this-cabal-guy-could-be-right-numeric-correlations-in-maury-yestons/.