Monday, June 01, 2015

Yet Another Reason to Read Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird

Given my interest in fairy tales and fairy tale re-visions, Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird was at the top of my summer reading list.  I'm so glad I read this slim, sly novel for so many reasons, but the one I'll put the spotlight on here and now has to do with the evocativeness of Oyeyemi's Hawthorne allusions.

At first glance, the scene where 13-year-old Bird and her 15-year-old friend Louis Chen team up to challenge the classmate who wrote "LOUIS CHEN IS A VIETCONG" in yellow chalk to fight them at "the corner of Pierce Road and Ivorydown" in Flax Hill includes what some might see as a fairly conventional Hawthorne invocation:
After ten minutes, we decided, with a mixture of disgust and relief, that Yellow Chalk Guy (or Girl) wasn't going to show, and we were ready to leave when three hefty boys from the eleventh grade showed up.  These three didn't take lunch money; they were less predictable than that.  They might stop you and give you a stash of comic books, or they might rip up your homework.  We knew their names, but never said them in case it made them appear.  One of them was directly descended from Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlet Letter; that one's mother had mentioned it at one of Grammy Olivia's coffee hours.  Mom says everybody immediately began to feel oppressed by their humble backgrounds because they'd forgotten (or didn't know) that anyone who's descended from Nathaniel Hawthorne is also a descendant of John Hathorne, the Salem judge who put just about as many innocent people to death as he could, so was it any wonder that Hawthorne was so good at describing what it felt like to be racked with guilt day and night. (182-183)
Bird's mom is Boy, and she and everyone in her family knows a lot about "what it felt like to be racked with guilt day and night," but she doesn't know that Bird and Louis are soon "caught in a circle of sniggering kids, without a single one of our so-called friends in sight," or that "the eleventh grader with the witch-hunter's blood," as Bird describes him, becomes the group's literal ring-leader, counseling "Patience, my friends, patience," as he refuses to allow the two friends to leave (183).  Fortunately, before they try to fight their way free, Grammy Olivia breaks the circle, leading Bird to reflect:
It put me in awe of Grammy Olivia's Saturday morning coffee hour, because that was part of the reason we went in peace--everyone's mother, aunt, grandmother, or great-aunt goes to Grammy Olivia's coffee hour.  Also Gee-Pa Gerald regularly plays golf with the Worcester's chief of police, et cetera.  Also Grammy Olivia's tone of voice offers you ten seconds to do as she says or the rest of your life to be sincerely sorry that you didn't. (184)
I won't go any further into this scene right now, because unpeeling some of its layers would give away too much of the characters' back stories and entanglements to avoid spoilers, but trust me that Hawthornean themes of family, descent, inheritance, and guilt invoked by this scene are at the heart of Oyeyemi's novel--in quite surprising and revealing ways.

And these themes carry over into the relationship between Bird and her older half-sister Snow, whose correspondence starts not long after this scene and eventually moves into trading stories (literally twice-told tales) about a figure they call La Belle Capuchine.  I'll skip the one Bird writes to Snow, which has a distinctly Chesnutt feel to it, and jump straight to the Snow's story, which might be read as a rewriting of "Rappaccini's Daughter," with a twist of "Earth's Holocaust":
La Belle Capuchine has a wonderful garden filled with sweet-smelling flowers of every color.  She plants all the flowers herself, and she tends them herself, and every single one of those flowers is poisonous enough to kill anyone who comes close to them, let alone picks one.  La Belle Capuchine is beautiful like her flowers, but she's a poison damsel.  She eats and drinks poison all day long and she can rot a person's insides just by looking them in the eye.  I don't think Mother Nature likes us much.  If she did, she wouldn't make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.  For instance, why does fire dance so bright and so wild?  It isn't fair.
So far La Belle Capuchine has ended the world seventeen times.  She does it by making her poison garden bigger and bigger until it's the only thing in the world.  After that she takes a nap.  But the world starts again from the beginning.  And every time a few days after the new beginning somebody comes across a beautiful flower and picks it.  That wakes La Belle Capuchine up, and then there's hell to pay.  I think we'd better get used to La Belle Capuchine, since she'll never be defeated. 
The End. (230)
Again, to close-read either this story or Snow's reading of it or Snow's reading of Bird's La Belle Capuchine story would be to give too much away to readers who haven't yet had a chance to enjoy Boy, Snow, Bird and its revelations for themselves.  So of course it's even more premature to use that close-reading to explore how and to what ends Oyeyemi is re-envisioning Hawthorne texts as much as she is re-envisioning "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty."

Consider this post, then, a promise to continue that exploration later!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

I'm Baaaaaaack!!

Hey folks, my apologies for the radio silence for most of the spring semester.  I decided to keep a low profile after helping organize Fredonia's answer to National Adjunct Walk-Out Day for a variety of reasons:
  • I was teaching over 30 novels, graphic novels, short story collections, and other books this semester and meeting regularly with students on their writing and other projects, so keeping up that pace required me to sleep whenever I could (yep, I'm really in my mid-40s now!);
  • negotiations over the appointment, reappointment, and promotion of contingent faculty at Fredonia went into an even higher gear and I didn't want to come close to skirting our ground rules of keeping negotiations confidential while they were ongoing;
  • thanks to an extension, the first draft of a  group-authored article on university-level shared governance I was working on got submitted almost in time;
  • the election/appointment process for Chairperson of my department ground away this academic year and I chose to devote my time to meeting individually with all my colleagues after my department held an election and recommended me to the Dean to prepare for the transition and assemble my leadership team;
  • I got appointed to a Title IX and Sexual Violence Task Force and an Academic Affairs Review Committee, both of which were (and are) vitally important and added to my time commitment;
  • my younger daughter broke her forearm in two places on the same day my Nissan Versa's engine melted on the Thruway;
  • I tried keeping up with as many new graphic novels as I could (including Saga, The Unwritten, Black Science, Morning Glories...) along with classics I missed by Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Kurt Busiek....
  • I tried keeping up some semblance of an exercise schedule and family life outside work....
No wonder I needed to sleep so much!  But it all came together.  My students kicked much butt this semester, particularly in my Major Writers course on Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.  Negotiations concluded successfully and our new Handbook on Appointment, Reappointment, and Promotion goes into effect 8/1/15 (on which much more later).  The President appointed me Chairperson and the department approved new minors and restructuring of the major.  Imoto's cast came off and she's working hard to get full range of motion back in the joints of her left arm.  I might even find out soon if Nissan USA will replace an engine that didn't even make it to 50,000 miles in just over 6 years, despite consistent and quality service from my Nissan dealer in WNY.  Plus, I won an election to become the new University Faculty Senator for Fredonia, representing the campus on the SUNY University Faculty Senate and returning to the Fredonia University Senate's Executive Committee.

I'll close this post with my election statement:

I ask for your vote in this election for University Faculty Senator. I welcome the opportunity to represent Fredonia in Albany as a voting member of the SUNY University Faculty Senate. I am prepared to shoulder the official and unofficial responsibilities that accompany such a privilege. The former are defined in Fredonia’s and the UFS’s Bylaws. The latter can be learned only by experience.

As a former Chairperson of Fredonia’s University Senate, I have attended multiple UFS plenaries and UFS-sponsored conferences in the last seven years. I know many Campus Governance Leaders, Senators, and current and former members of the Governance Committee--and the UFS Executive Committee. And they know me.

They know that I can be counted on to do my homework, to pull my weight, to step up to the plate, to listen to and engage my colleagues with respect and care, to remain calm and constructive in the midst of chaos and controversy, to develop reasoned positions on complex issues, to generate innovative solutions to pressing problems, to use persuasion, diplomacy, and charm to move the body and its leaders to speak and act on behalf of SUNY’s mission and faculty, and, above all, to do what it takes to make shared governance and public universities work--better and better.

They know that I wouldn’t become Fredonia’s UFS representative only to stay on the sidelines. They would expect more from someone...
  • ...who challenged a newly-appointed Chancellor to consider incorporating into her campaign for the power of SUNY Christopher Newfield’s case in Unmaking the Public University (2011) that robust state investments in public higher education were crucial to America’s post-WWII prosperity and expanding middle class.
  • ...who pushed a then-President of United University Professions to risk opening a window of opportunity for strategic partnerships with new SUNY leadership.
  • ...who encouraged UFS leaders to stake out common-ground positions that could bring all the organizations representing SUNY together to change Albany politics.
  • ...who helped upgrade Fredonia’s Bylaws and helped Fredonia win SUNY’s first-ever Shared Governance Award.
If you don’t know me, I invite you to examine my c.v., web page, academic blog, and twitterfeed. If you don’t know what to expect from me, I invite you to find out from the Fredonia University Senate Executive Committee (on which I served from 2008-2010 and 2011-2014), the Executive Board of the Fredonia Chapter of UUP (1999-2006, 2009-up), and the English department (1998-up; Chairperson as of this fall).

If you know me, I hope you share my confidence that my decades of experience in department-level and university-level shared governance, as well as chapter- and state-level union service, will serve you well in--and keep you well-informed about--system-wide shared governance. I hope you trust me to bring your views and voices not only to the UFS but also to the Chancellor and Chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees. I hope you’ll make me your advocate for affordable quality public higher education in Albany.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NAAW Reminder: Survey Wednesday

Survey Wednesday
National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week at Fredonia

Please help the Contingent Faculty Subcommittee kick off their survey of contingent faculty at Fredonia, which gathers data on contingent working conditions and perceptions of campus culture to discern work patterns, compensation, working conditions, governance participation, and integration into the life of the campus.  It should help us all better understand the goals, needs, and desires of colleagues and instructors on appointments that are not eligible for tenure at Fredonia.

Dear Contingent Colleagues,

As you know, New York State law prohibits our participation in any job action or strike, so the organizers of Fredonia’s contribution to National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week wanted to come up with a constructive way to honor National Adjunct Walkout Day without participating in it.  Instead of walking out--something many adjuncts who aren’t represented by a union and are shut out of governance of their universities may well be doing today--why not provide key information to your union leaders and governance representatives so that they may better serve you?  Instead of risking your job, why not help us improve your working life?

This survey is for faculty on contingent appointments at Fredonia only.  It may be filled out any time before 5 pm on Friday, March 13, 2015.  It can be found at

This survey is anonymous and individual responses will NEVER be shared.  Only aggregate data will be made available.

Please take a small part of your day today--or any day before Spring Break--to help make a difference at Fredonia.  Thanks,

--John Arnold
Chair, Contingent Faculty Subcommittee

--Bruce Simon
Officer for Contingents

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

NAAW Reminder: Open Letter Tuesday

Open Letter Tuesday
National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week at Fredonia

It’s time to get personal! Please post on your office or dormitory door or bulletin board a statement on what National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week means to you, and consider sending it to The Leader or The Observer and/or posting it on a blog or other social media.

The personal experiences of adjuncts are too often dismissed or ignored completely by tenure-stream faculty and administrators.  Here is an opportunity to express the value of these colleagues to academic institutions.   Many disciplines regard ethnography and qualitative research as valuable tools to explore life experiences and valuable contributions to the world at large; personal stories and reflections can supplement statistics and allow for understanding and identification.  Quantification of contingency is important, to be sure, but so is thinking through the particular structures of feeling that arise from working in a system of higher education increasingly reliant on contingent labor, whatever your place(s) in that system.

Many contingent faculty have decided there is great value in sharing their stories and views.  Some, like James Hoff, Amy Lynch-Biniek, and Elizabeth Salaam, have been doing it on their own.  Others have responded to calls for papers (cf. Hybrid Pedagogy) or calls for testimony (cf. “The Just in Time Professor” [compiled by the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in January 2014]).

There are many organizations collecting such stories even now:

So why not take the opportunity to write a short piece that might take on a life of its own after being posted on your office or dormitory door or bulletin board, on your blog or Facebook page?  Why not explore what it means to be a student?  Or a tenured faculty member?  Or a contingent faculty member?  Why not consider the pros and cons of National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week relative to tomorrow’s National Adjunct Walkout Day?  Beyond better understanding the system, why not help the Fredonia community consider what will change it?

Monday, February 23, 2015

NAAW Reminder: Scarlet Letter Monday at Fredonia

Scarlet Letter Monday 
National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week at Fredonia

We are encouraging everyone on campus
to make and wear a badge
like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter,
using your A
to signify Adjunct/Ally/Awareness/Appreciation
all week—and beyond.

What Is an Adjunct?
An adjunct is a member of the faculty at a college or university on a contingent appointment type that is not eligible for tenure—an institution that guarantees academic freedom, due process rights, and peer review.  The implication from most dictionary definitions that adjuncts are unnecessary supplements does not apply to the growing number of faculty on contingent appointments today.  Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, and New Faculty Majority, among many others, have been sounding the alarm that roughly 75% of all faculty appointments in the U.S. are contingent.  For more information and background, please see:

AAUP’s overview (2015):
AAUP's background facts (2015):
CAW's portrait (2012):
CAW Members’ Policy Recommendations (2015):
CFHE’s principles (2011):
CFHE’s report (2012):
New Faculty Majority's website (2015):

What Are Adjuncts’ Lives Like in SUNY?
Over decades of collective bargaining with the state of New York, United University Professions has made progress in improving the terms and conditions of employment and access to benefits for SUNY faculty on contingent appointments (see the latest Agreement for details), but there is still a long way to go.  Fredonia is one of the few campuses in the system to have set a university-wide floor for starting compensation for part-time contingent faculty (others include Cortland and Oswego).  UUP’s New Paltz chapter ( has become a national leader in highlighting the value of contingent faculty members’ contributions to their students’ learning and success with their Mayday $5K Campaign and October 2013 forum on contingent employment.

If you see someone wearing a Scarlet A this week
outside of their classroom,
please ask them why!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fredonia's National Adjunct Awareness/Action Week Overview

February 23-27 is National Adjunct Action/Awareness Week.  To learn about the projects organized by members of the Contingent Employment Advisory Group of Fredonia's United University Professions chapter (a union body) and the Contingent Faculty Subcommittee of our Faculty and Professional Affairs Committee (a governance body), along with a firm caution against participating in any job action or strike associated with National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25, please visit our overview.

We'll be sending out further information about each project each day of the week!

--John Arnold (Chair, Contingent Faculty Subcommittee) and Bruce Simon (Officer for Contingents)