Transcript: Deborah Appleman
My conversation with the Carleton College professor and author
“I hate it when I find myself agreeing with people with whom I usually disagree.”
These are the opening lines of a book written by my guest on the podcast today. She’s a progressive professor, but she now finds herself breaking ranks with the left over which works of literature are acceptable to be read and discussed in America’s classrooms.
Deborah Appleman is the Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College, and an instructor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater.
Her latest book is Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Deborah, welcome to Lean Out.
DA: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much.
TH: Wonderful to have you here. There’s a lot to talk about in this book, and, as I’ve said to you, I think the timing on it is perfect. Let’s start here: In the book you quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has called literature “the messy stories of humanity.” But there has been a lot of disagreement in recent years over what stories get taught — and how. Probably more than I’ve seen in my lifetime. There are calls for book bannings, for removing classic texts from the canon, for elaborate trigger warnings. You taught in high school before becoming a professor at Carleton College. At what point did you begin to notice this trend taking hold?
DA: It’s such an interesting question, Tara, because I think there’s always been censorship. When I was a high school teacher, I noticed that the push to ban certain books was usually from people who identified themselves as being on the right side of the political spectrum. People who were worried about explicit sexual themes, people who were worried about inappropriate language, people who were worried about subject matter that they thought was inappropriate for adolescents. So, the challenges to those books always came from the right. And we were kind of armed by the American Library Association and our professional associations to try to provide some rationales for why to read the books. But lately, in the last five years or so, the arguments and the push for censorship has come from the left as well. Which is why the first chapter of my book is “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right. Here, I Am Stuck in the Middle With You.” And I’m not used to not agreeing with people who I consider to be my political bedfellows. But the kind of uber vigilance about the lives of authors — or the ways in which if certain portrayals are problematic that the solution is to not teach the book at all? That is pretty new stuff. And so that’s why this feels particularly urgent for people who care about the teaching of literature. Because we’re being pressed from both sides. And that’s why I felt compelled to write the book.
TH: You wrote in Newsweek that you have become a reluctant warrior against cancel culture. You identify as part of the progressive left. I also come from the progressive left. You found yourself becoming increasingly critical of its tactics. What impacts of cancel culture have you observed in the classroom?
DA: So, I’ve observed this both in the high school classroom and in the college classroom. One of the things that I’ve observed in the college classroom — and this is a slightly different, but something that I also talk about — is the ubiquity of trigger warnings for the recipients of literature. And so we have this culture that in some ways almost fetishizes the sense that we have to make sure that everybody’s wellbeing is taken care of in the literature classroom. But as the quote you opened our conversation with suggests, literature is messy. And actually our idea for teaching literature is to mess things up. It is to make us feel some negative feelings. To make us feel sad, to make us feel horrified, to make us feel empathy with things that are going on. So if we clean everything up so that no one ever experiences any emotional discomfort, the canon of most of our literature, both classic and contemporary, is going to be eviscerated.
One example that I cite from a college classroom is when several female students approached a women’s studies professor complaining that Toni Morrison was on the syllabus with The Bluest Eye. They knew that it had incest in it and said it was triggering. The funny thing is — and this is something that I’ve experienced too — it wasn’t triggering for them personally. They were complaining by proxy: “Someone somewhere has experienced incest, and that’s a horrible thing.” But the teacher was devastated that the students didn’t trust her enough to figure out how to navigate it.
So, triggering is something that I’ve seen a lot. At my college campus, there was going to be a production of The Merchant of Venice. Teaching revenge tragedies right now is a nightmare. Teaching Shakespeare is a nightmare. Well, there was a poster for the play that was a drawing — a beautiful drawing of a knife with a single drop of blood coming from it.
A student group insisted that the professor take it down because the violence was triggering to them. I mean, last night I was at a high security prison for men until 10 o’clock, teaching a creative writing class. It’s kind of like, “Come on guys. That’s not really violence.”
The other thing that has really been impacting high school classrooms — in addition to the censoring of books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird — which I’m not saying shouldn’t be augmented with more contemporary choices. But I don’t think they should be banned. There has also been the wholesale banning of people like Sherman Alexie, which actually was the starting point for me.
I can hardly talk about it without crying. When I was a high school teacher — especially when I was in Minneapolis with a large Native population — having students read Sherman Alexie was like a gift. I’ve always thought as a high school teacher that what I’m doing is gifting them with literature. It’s an opportunity for them to experience things that are both affirming to their own identity as well as eye-opening. This idea of windows and mirrors — seeing yourself, but then looking out to see other people. And I can’t tell you the number of times that students, Native students, came up to me and said, “All my life” — all 16 years of it [laughs] — “I’ve been waiting to read something by a Native author. And now I have, and he’s awesome, and thank you.” Some people can make the argument, “Well, you can read Tommy Orange or you can read some of the women that [Alexie] allegedly took advantage of.”
But I do believe that there are some talents and voices that are so unique that they’re not replaceable. In my opinion, Sherman Alexie is one of them. Toni Morrison is one of them.
And one of the things that’s happened — which I’m not sure that the progressive left is as aware of as they should be — is that we’re cancelling the very kind of diverse authors, authors of colour, that people have been crying for the past 40 years. So that’s part of what I’ve been seeing as well.
TH: Lots to talk about there. One of the things that strikes me with the trigger warnings — going back to that — as you point out in the book, great literature often makes us really uncomfortable. It shakes the foundations of who we are, and how we see the world. And, as you’re saying, the trigger warnings can upend that experience. It can almost instruct students what that experience is before they enter it. As opposed to making up their own minds about what that means. Do you think it also sends a message to students that they are fragile?
DA: Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve had so many conversations lately in my college classroom with students, and in my office — and, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my students. They are wonderful human beings and they will grow up to be incredible adults. But I had a conversation with a student yesterday about whether she should take a mental health day and not come to class. It was complicated by the fact that they were doing a group project, her group was needing her. I like to think that my classroom is a warm, welcoming, nurturing place. There are 24 other young people there. And when I do a cost/benefit analysis of what would be better for that student — to stay in her dorm bedroom, swaddled under covers, or to be out in the world with other human beings who understand her grief, who understand her pain, who understand even her fragility — I keep thinking that they are making the wrong choice.
I don’t want to be callous and say, “What do you mean you’re going to take it a mental health day?” Or wear a t-shirt that says, “You know what? It’s not always all about you.” Because one of the things that I said to her is, “You are in this protected bubble right now where there is an army of adults like me who get paid to care deeply about you. I would care about you for free anyway. But part of my job is to care about you, to help shepherd you through these tricky waters. But guess what? When you graduate, there is not going to be an army of nicely paid people whose job it is to make sure that you don’t get hurt. That you don’t break. That’s going to be up to you — and you’re not going to get the opt out.”
A long time ago, the wonderful Vivian Paley, who taught at a lab school at the University of Chicago — when she was writing about little kids, one of the titles of her books is You Can’t Say You Won’t Play. You can’t say that. You can’t say, “I’m going to take my ball and go home. I’m too fragile for this. I can’t watch this. I can’t read this. I can’t participate in this.” You can’t say you won’t play. Because playing in the literature classroom means learning how to be uncomfortable and learning to feel the discomfort of others.
One of the quotes that I used in the book was also by James Baldwin who said, “I used to think that my life was terrible and that the grief and pain that I was feeling was only my own. And then I began to read, and then I realized that what I was feeling was felt by other people in other circumstances, in other ways, and that it connected him to those other people.” So that he didn’t feel so isolated. But it also made him realize that there was nothing so solipsistic and unique about his own particular grief. And that maybe what he needed to do is to step back and think about not just being about him, but being about the human condition.
That’s what I’ve noticed from my students is that their focus tends to be more on themselves — rather than, what is it that we’re experiencing together as a culture? Is this about Covid? Is this about stress? Is this about the economy? Is this about the kind of political terrorism that we’re witnessing? So yeah, the trigger warnings, I think, are not really serving our students very well at all.
TH: I love that James Baldwin quote. So much of my life has come to me through books. I think that the ability to inhabit so many different worlds as a child, and as an adolescent, helped me with interviewing. Because the exercise in interviewing is really about deeply listening to the other person’s experience. And these are transferable skills. One of the things you also point out is in this social justice orthodoxy, there is an assumption at work that all literature must be a political project. And the extension of that is that art cannot exist for art’s sake. This is a puritanical idea — that there are no pursuits outside of the moral project. How do we separate reading, and the richness of reading, from political endeavours, which are so toxic and so polarized right now?
DA: Yeah, I was just thinking about that. Ironically, I was thinking about that with an NPR story about a climate change activist who had thrown tomato soup on van Gogh’s sunflowers. And she was defending it by saying that the climate, the world, is more important than this piece of art — and she’s going to use this piece of art to serve her political purposes. And it’s really tricky.
I mean, you hit the nail on the head by talking about particular kinds of orthodoxies. If there is a singular dogmatic viewpoint that is driving the curriculum, that’s wrong — even if it’s a viewpoint whose politics align with yours. Because that’s a kind of brainwashing. It’s not just the right that can brainwash; the left can brainwash too. Art exists, yes. There is political art that can be incredibly effective and move us to action. But art is also a reflection of the human experience. And it has an aesthetic purpose that is not necessarily instrumental.
We read for reading’s sake, we view for viewing’s sake, we listen for listening’s sake —because that’s part of what it is to make us human.
One of the issues that I have with the social justice curriculum, per se, is that their aim, their objectives, their goals, are not literary in any way. So that the book, the texts, become a means to an end. It’s a different end. It’s not an aesthetic end. It’s a political end. And, yes, I read literature to help young people feel more human. To help them have empathy. You just talked about needing that even to be an interviewer. You need to listen to other people, to understand where they’re coming from. And that’s what we want from all human beings. We want them to be able to understand who other people are, where they’re coming from, and that their feelings and thoughts and beliefs need to be attended to.
This is the thing that gets me: I think that literature is political, naturally, in the sense that it’s trying to help you navigate other worlds. So it’s political, broadly-construed. Being a teacher is a political act. You’re saying that someone’s education is really important, and everyone should be educated. That’s the bedrock of democracy — this belief that we have. So if someone decides a priori that I’m only going to teach books that deliver my message, that’s just as proselytizing, it’s just as one-sided, and it’s just as brainwashing as a kind of right wing propaganda. So that’s where I have trouble with it.
TH: You also in the book, refer to the work of Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder, who have both been on this podcast and they have a concept, “the tyranny of presentism.” Can you define that?
DA: Amna and Jeff are colleagues of mine, and I actually acknowledge them in the book because they were so helpful. Presentism is such an important concept because one of the things that’s happening in literature is that critics are superimposing a 21st century morality compass onto 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and even 20th century texts. This is what’s happening with Shakespeare. This is what’s happening with the way in which Mark Twain uses the n-word — which I’m not defending, we could have a whole complicated podcast just about that alone. But authors create, and reflect, the world in which they’re living. And we can’t really hold them hostage to the mores and feelings and values of our 21st century world. And we sometimes forget what it is that’s going into the portrayal.
For example, when I was a high school teacher, I taught The Merchant of Venice. I’m Jewish, and I had a colleague who is Jewish as well. And he said, “How can you teach that book? It’s antisemitic because Shylock is a money lender.” Well, in Shakespeare’s day, Jews could not own land. They were forbidden from being landowners. And there was a finite number of occupations that historically a Jewish person in that time would naturally take. And lending money was one of them. Now, that does not absolve any of the tropes that people can see and read, but it has some explanatory power. Why is Shakespeare having the character do this? In what way? He wasn’t a person who was working for a studio in Hollywood — or any of the other kind of more contemporary stereotypes that we have. And the same thing is true for the way that women are treated, the way we think about gender, the way we think about relationships, and the way we use certain language.
So, the presentism suggests that every book we read, regardless of when it was written, needs to reflect our contemporary moral code. And it can’t. And it shouldn’t. What we can do is to take our contemporary moral code, view the book through that lens and say, “How have we grown? What’s still the same?”
In my prison class, we just read A Letter to My Nephew by James Baldwin. You can tell what a giant fan of his I am. And then we were talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. We were talking about the fact that Baldwin wrote this in 1962, and what’s changed? What’s not changed? And so I think that the cult of presentism is something that is trying to make education, schooling, our language, this contemporary reflexive project where all we do is just inhabit the world that we have, reinforce the values that we have — and expect everything to fall along those lines as well.
TH: It makes me think. What you’re advocating for here in the book is troubling what these so-called problematic texts are. Teaching them instead of erasing them. Giving students this range of critical lenses to look at them from. And I really like that plurality, and I really like that trust in students. One thing it makes me wonder about is some of the tendencies of critical theories are really about problematizing everything. When I look back on my undergrad, I read a tonne of feminist theory and I look back on some of my readings — I think they were probably misreadings. They were over-problematizing. How do we avoid that tendency when we’re giving [students] all these critical lenses?
DA: A book that I’ve written that’s pretty widely used is called Critical Encounters. It’s about teaching literary theory to secondary students. And I do use gender, I use reader response, I use post-colonialism, I use Marxist literary theory — or class, so you can teach it in Texas. I have a whole bunch of them. And the point is what you just said. The point is multiplicity. So I agree with you completely. It’s sort of like, we say it’s Mark Twain, but it was really Abraham Maslow who said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
I think that’s one of the things that happened in our undergraduate literary theory classes — that we were looking for all these nails depending on are we doing feminist theory or what? But if you have a toolkit, an intellectual and theoretical toolkit, where you’re looking to see how is gender played out? You’re looking at the structure of the language. You’re trying to think about the way in which class is visible, or not visible. You’re looking at the stance of the author, and the degree to which the life of the author bleeds into the text. Then you are not on a simple hunt for one thing. And I agree that too much critique can take the joy out of reading, and people sometimes should just read it and not analyze it. And think about what it means for them. But for me, the answer to your question is the notion of multiplicity. And also giving people enough tools so that they create the interpretation that makes the most sense to them.
TH: You do raise the issue of Critical Race Theory in the book. This is probably the biggest issue in education right now and you mentioned this has been oversimplified by both sides. I have had a number of Black writers and thinkers on the show, one of whom studied Critical Race Theory in law school, another who has resisted CRT in the charter schools that he ran in the Bronx. So the arguments that I’ve been hearing is that while CRT itself is not taught — as you point out, it’s a legal theory — the ideas are. And there’s a discomfort with this idea of looking at the world through the lens of race and dividing children up into racial identities. That that might be unhealthy to teach white kids that they inherently have privilege and take part in oppression of others. And it’s equally unhealthy to teach Black kids that the odds are stacked against them. That this robs them of agency. Now, critically, everyone I spoke to did not object to CRT being taught, but objected to it being taught as truth — instead of a perspective. How do you process all those arguments?