Thursday, September 18, 2014

#JusticeForEthan and the Election of a Sheriff

I started writing about police violence and disability because of the death of Ethan Saylor. I had read stories like this for years, but when Ethan died, unlike during previous tragedies, I had a few links to media.

I first wrote this piece for The Nation.
I then wrote this widely-read piece for CNN and did a lot of radio after.

I began to study police training in earnest, first wrote the words "cult of compliance," and have now published repeatedly on this subject. It's always in Ethan's memory.

Right now, in Frederick MD, there's a sheriff's election about to take place. The men who killed Ethan were deputies. In the wake of his death, the right-wing tea-partier anti-immigrant pro-income-inequality Sheriff Jenkins made it clear that his boys did nothing wrong in his eyes. He got support from the local government, too (this is my piece on the villains of the story).

He's up for re-election. Karl Bickel is running against him with the full support of the Saylor family and the disability community. Follow this link for a Saylor-family online fundraiser for Bickel.

That's not actually why I'm writing this blog. I'm writing because Sheriff Jenkins' brother, Gary Jenkins, put a letter about Ethan Saylor in the local paper, which I will quote in full.
It is unfortunate that Ethan Saylor lost his life in a preventable situation. With that said, I for one am tired of hearing all the theories of who is to blame, especially the security officers (who happened to be off-duty deputies). According to The Frederick News-Post, all witnesses conveyed that security did not act inappropriately or mistreat him in any way.
Some people tried to blame the movie theatre staff, saying they could have let him stay for free. These are mostly young adults doing what they are told and afraid to lose their jobs. Patti Saylor blames Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, again misplaced.

I would suggest Patti go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and face the blame. What was she doing that night so important she could not accompany Ethan to the movie? I know we all need time alone, however, she should have known better to send him out in public with someone ill-equipped to handle him. If she couldn’t go, keep him home in his comfort zone or send him with someone properly trained. According to The News-Post, she directed his care provider to leave him alone in the theater, another mistake for which she is to blame. Her poor choices are to blame and she should accept responsibility.

Then we have Karl Bickel show up with a political agenda and criticize our sheriff over the incident, while he has no clue what happened as he did not bother to read the report, according to an article in the Aug. 28 News-Post (“Saylor endorses Bickel”). Here again, he is trying to capitalize on the death of a young man. Disgusting and shameful behavior; certainly not what I would expect from a candidate for sheriff.
I want to focus on that this paragraph, the one that blames Patti Saylor for her son's death. To Jenkins, society cannot adapt to people with disabilities; rather, people with disabilities must be kept contained at all times or their parents are to blame for what happens. Patti and her aide made reasonable decisions.

The only people who made unconscionable decisions were the deputies who decided that Ethan's non-compliance justified throwing him to the ground and handcuffing him, a process during which he asphyxiated. They have never been held accountable for their actions.

These are the stakes in the battle for inclusion. These are the stakes in the battle to support the ADA and its continued implementation. The stakes are high.

Good luck to Karl Bickel.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

End the Conference Interview, Take 47

On Chronicle Vitae, today, I will have a new essay about ending the conference interview. In it, I offer ways to make the shift into a positive rather than a surrender to austerity.

Listen. The conference interview is, in fact, already dead. Video interview technology is getting better and better, funds are limited, and like all traditions this one is going to fade away. It might take 20 years. But it's not going to last forever. The question is whether we, as faculty, manage this transition or whether it is eventually simply done to us by cost-cutting administrations.

Some background.

  • I wrote these two blogs on the topic last November. They were by far not the first pieces pointing out the flaws in the system.
 For example.
Not long after I wrote my blogs, though entirely unconnected to them, the issue thoroughly exploded as a result UC-Riverside's job offer which promised to offer all-of three days of warning to candidates they wanted to interview. Rebecca Schuman's wrote an anti-interview piece, there was a backlash to her tone, then a backlash to the backlash, and so forth.
 Ok, caught up?

After all this was over, last February, I thought to myself. Next fall, early in the semester, I will write another piece on the conference interview. I will really think about how I might persuade skeptics and holdouts, people who believe the interview does more good than harm, people who are not bad or callous, who understand the financial issues, but who just are resistant to change.

Today's piece in Vitae, exploring how we might take control of funds once used to send people to the conferences for interviews, and re-purpose them, is my attempt at that.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about and listening to reasons that the conference interview is good. To my mind, they boil down to the following:

1. Skype sucks.

I deal with this in my piece. Low-rent skype using lousy hotel-room wi-fi does, indeed, suck. Professional video conferencing is pretty reliable. And as I describe at the end of this piece, face-to-face interviews, whether in the cattle call room, the hotel-suite sitting area or (NO NO NO!) on the hotel-room beds, have their problems too.
I try to think of it like math. Video interviews - free vs Conference interviews - thousands of dollars. There's no way that equation doesn't work out for video conferencing.
2. Going to the conference shows that we, the hiring department, are serious.

In this age of precarity, no department needs to prove they are serious. There is no school that will not have plenty of qualified candidates for any position. There are other ways to indicate your seriousness.

3. Conference interviews provide networking etc. to young PhDs.
I believe this can be true. Graduate training programs should budget in sending a senior grad student to their disciplinary conference, and then conferences should build programming designed to serve this population. In fact, they already do, but imagine of they were just there for the conference, not amid the interview madness. The experience will be so much better.
4. We've always done it that way

Well, not really, it was in the 60s and was a good thing too, as it helped break the "old boy's network." Before that, people just called up friends and asked them to send over a graduate student.
That time has passed. Moreover, video conferencing will do just as good a job and keeping the process "honest."
My next step is this - I am going to start calling search chairs that state they are going to hold interviews at conferences. I will ask them why. I will offer them anonymity in exchange for honesty.

I will publish the results, both here and, if interesting enough, at Vitae.

As I said almost a year ago - we can't fix most of the problems in higher ed very easily. They run deep, they tie into big issues in our society, and they involve millions of dollars.

But this one just takes an act of will. We can solve it tomorrow. Let's solve it tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Disabilities and Identity - Spectrum, not Binary

Today I have a new piece on CNN about Kanye West. I build on yesterday's blog post, expanding my argument that the Kanye West's behavior is a magnified celebrity egotistical version of the kinds of skepticism and suspicion faced people with disabilities all the time. In the piece, I write:
Reaction to this incident throughout social media and in numerous publications was swift and condemnatory. West, in return, lashed out at the media. But in fact, although West's celebrity magnifies the story, the bigger issue here is that his demand that his fans prove their disability is entirely typical.

Every day, in every context, people with disabilities get challenged to prove how disabled they are. This constant questioning isolates people with disabilities, increases stress and shame, and can lead directly to verbal or even physical abuse
I finish the piece with these thoughts:
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to claim disability is to ask for reasonable accommodation -- accessible buildings, more time on tests, audible formats for books, Social Security disability payments, and more. Too many people seem to regard the request to accommodate as a burden and meet such requests with suspicion. The not-disabled exercise their privilege by demanding that people prove their disabilities; then, all too often, proof just generates pity, not understanding or inclusion.
By demanding everyone rise, by calling out the disabled members of his audience even as he grudgingly tolerated their inability to stand, West was being totally normal. If you think what he did was wrong, remember that the next time you are tempted to stare down someone walking from a handicapped spot at the grocery store. Remember that the next time someone managing pain can't make it into work. Remember that the next time a student needs a little more time on a test.
One key takeaway from the piece, I hope, is the understanding the disability is not a binary. People are not either perfectly disabled or perfectly abled. Rather, we are all at the most temporarily abled, moving in and sometimes out of states of disability throughout our lives, or even just in a single day as we expend whatever strength we have and then need accommodations.'

I like to think about disability, especially physical disability, as overlapping spectrum that people might move along it as conditions change or just when they've used up all their spoons (read about the "But You Don't Look Sick" spoon theory here, it's a useful analogy). It's more complicated for intellectual/development disability because one doesn't want to normalize "typical," but that's a topic for another post.

That's not how our culture sees it. That's not how Kanye West sees it. For them, you are either disabled or not. You can't need accommodations just some of the time, in such a perspective.

But that's not how disability actually works. And everyone who has ever been sick or had an operation knows this. Disability works in many ways. An inclusive society accepts all of these ways and tries to build an accessible world, for whoever, whenever, under whatever circumstances.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kanye West and Testing Disability

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog that was pretty widely read and shared (compared to my other posts) on the "Pencil Test" for disability. It focused around a man flung to the ground by Florida police, to see if he was really disabled or just faking it.

There's actually a lot of discourse on faking disability lately, from Bieber in a wheelchair at Disney to George Takei mocking disability and a desire for liquor. We question disability, wonder who is parking in the wheelchair spots who then gets out and walks, scowling at those folks who pick up their social security checks, and so forth.

To claim disability is to ask for reasonable accommodation, and some folks just seem to hate that idea, or at least regard it with intense suspicion.

Moreover, the privilege of the abled is, under almost any circumstance, to demand a person prove their disability, whether psychiatric or physical. 

And now there's Kanye West.
The setting was the Qantas Credit Union Arena in Sydney, Australia, and Westreportedly announced, “I can’t do this song. I can’t do this show until everybody stand up… Unless you got a handicap pass and you get special parking and shit. ‘Imma see you if you ain’t standing up, believe me, I’m very good at that.” Then came the foot-in-mouth moment. Most of the fans got up and boogied, but soon West spotted a pair of concertgoers who’d remained in their seats, and refused to continue the show until they stood up and danced like the rest. One of those two singled-out fans raised a prosthetic limb, thereby proving that she did in fact “get special parking and shit,” to which West replied, “Okay, you fine.”
West then homed in on Fan No. 2, who was still seated. He stopped performing the tune “The Good Life” and declared, “This is the longest I’ve had to wait to do a song, it’s unbelievable.” The crowd was reportedly trying to clue Kanye in to his epic blunder, with the entire section making wheelchair signals with their arms. But to no avail. West sent his bulky bodyguard Pascal Duvier into the crowd to confirm that the seated fan was, in fact, in a wheelchair. When it was confirmed, West said, “He is in a wheelchair? It’s fine!”
There's approximately 4 million posts up now on this incident, all of them focused on West being wrong and way out of line.

West is being totally normal. This is what we do. We shame. We examine. We demand to see proof. And then, grudgingly, so grudgingly, first we accommodate, then we shame those who questioned, shame those who were slower than us to react, and elevate the person with the disability onto to the Inspiration Pedestal.

There's a lot of focus in the posts on fan #2, who had to prove he was in a wheelchair to a bodyguard.

I'm thinking of #1, who had to HOLD UP HER PROSTHETIC LEG to prove herself disabled enough to be "fine."

That's the pencil test - intrusive, revealing, demeaning, dehumanizing.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Boycotts: NFL, GoFundMe, University of Illinois

Get it? It's a roundup! 
Today is Sunday. I am not watching the NFL. 

For me, being a football fan was a major part of my identity, one that intensified with the advent of Fantasy Football. As the concussion scandal intensified, I began to scale back my engagement with the game. First quitting fantasy, then we moved the TV upstairs in a (failed) attempt at less screen time for the kids, so I just didn't have the games on all Sunday.

You can say, as someone did on my Facebook wall, that my moral compass is lacking because I didn't stop watching football earlier, but it's hard to shed pieces of your identity. I was a fan. 

The domestic violence issue - not just Rice, but the people who beat women NOT on video tape who happily are playing today, followed by the Adrian Peterson story of beating his child with a stick, has made me finally turn off the NFL. I cannot promise I won't turn it on again, but not today.

My feeling is that the NFL enables a culture of violence, through its embrace of pain and fear as motivations, it teaches that pain and fear of pain is how you solve problems: With kids. With spouses. With each other. The NFL glorifies violence and it shouldn't surprise anyone that the violence extends outside the stadium. I have no idea what they can do about it, either, so I'm not watching.

Not watching is different than demanding a boycott. I think it would be good if everyone in America turned off the NFL for an hour on Sunday. I have no expectations that will, or can, happen. I'm not saying what ethical decision you make if you turn on football today, but I hope more people think hard about it.

Other boycotts have a better chance of effect.

I will not contribute to any GoFundMe campaigns started after 9/9/14 until they treat abortion the same way they treat all other personal medical procedures. 
Now this pledge I think you SHOULD make. I'll write more about it this week and try to drum up more awareness about the problem.

I also wrote three posts about Steven Salaita and the boycott of UIUC: Reactions to his press conference, which I attended. Thoughts on duality of the position of Israel as a superpower and the Jews as an oppressed minority, which I think lies at the hearts of our debates about whether Salaita is punching up or down.

Finally, I am crowdsourcing information on how the final rubber-stamp approvals work at universities with which many of my readers are associated. I said:
I am shifting my attention to an issue on which I think we can all agree: Final approval for a job cannot take place weeks after a professor has started his or her classes.
Can you please, in a comment, in an email, on my public facebook thread, or even on twitter tell me the timing of your final reviews for new hires at your school? I need to get a sense of how common this kind of delayed rubber stamp is.
I think this is really important and now is a moment we can focus on these practices and, at least in some case, change them.

Finally, I had a brief Q&A with John Scalzi on his newest book, last Monday. Feels like a long time ago before all my writing descended into this fairly grim place. Yay interesting speculative fiction. Reading fun stuff - Now that's a good way to spend a Sunday.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Crowdsourcing: Hiring Timelines with Boards of Trustees/Regents/Visitors Approval

As surely all of you know by now, the hiring then unhiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois has highlighted many important issues for higher education. Much of the discussion has, correctly, focused on how we may and may not discuss Israel and fundamental questions about academic freedom and faculty governance.

As the case heads to the courts, I am shifting my attention to an issue on which I think we can all agree: Final approval for a job cannot take place weeks after a professor has started his or her classes.

Whatever you think of Steven Salaita, there is no way that an acceptable system can involve having to quit your job, prepare to travel across the country, start teaching, and then find out a few weeks later whether you're actually hired. Ian Bogost has thought through some of the consequences in his piece on "Academic Paydom," (a play on academic freedom).

Meanwhile, boards are getting more active, as discussed in these two pieces.


I will be spending the next week doing some research on the timing of final reviews of hires at universities. I am going to be calling Midwestern state schools (just to keep the project doable), but I need help with the broader context. Crowdsourcing is notoriously unscientific, but it does provide with a way to get a sense of the scope of these practices.

Can you please, in a comment, in an email, on my public facebook thread, or even on twitter tell me the timing of your final reviews for new hires at your school? I need to get a sense of how common this kind of delayed rubber stamp is.

Thank you.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Language and Power: Israel and Salaita

As indicated by the header of my blog, I focus on language, power, and privilege. One principle that I have consistently applied, whether talking about gender, race, academic life, whatever, is that when you have privilege and power, your speech is more constrained than if you do not.

I wrote about this kind of issue most recently in my rules for talking while privileged in regards to gender, but it's much bigger than that. One way of perpetuating power is to control the discourse of the people over whom you have power. Demanding people be polite or civil, as has recently happened all over college campuses is a way of insisting that people don't upset structured power dynamics. Change often requires incivility.

Problems arise, however, when the power dynamic is not clear or contested. Right-wing white Christians like to claim that Christianity and whiteness are both under attack; ergo, as victims, they justify their incivility. A similar process takes place with Men's Rights Activists. In both cases, I am entirely comfortable saying that their assessment of the power dynamic is wrong.

Which brings me to Israel.

Steven Salaita, would-be-professor at Illinois (here's one link among hundreds) is the case in question. Here's the key dispute [my emphasis]
Mr. Kennedy’s statement argued that several of Mr. Salaita’s tweets about Israel "can be easily interpreted as basically anti-Semitic." The Chicago Tribune, in an editorial supporting the board’s vote, asserted on Thursday that Mr. Salaita had crossed the line into hate speech with tweets that said Zionists had been "transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable" and "I wish all the [expletive] West Bank settlers would go missing." The newspaper suggested that no faculty member would be given license to direct similar comments at black people, gay people, or women.
Many of Mr. Salaita’s supporters, however, argue that such comments are not anti-Semitic but fair, if emotional, expressions of opposition to Israel’s actions and to those who allege anti-Semitism in response to criticisms of the Israeli government.
There is, of course, a counter-argument, that no faculty member would be harassed at all if they directed similar comments at Russia or the Ferguson Police Department, just to pick two powerful forces that received plenty of uncivil commentary, including from academics, this summer.

The problem is this: Is Israel a military superpower, at least in the context of its region, and a political superpower in terms of its influence over American discourse? If we see Israel (and perhaps Likud and its allies) in such a context, then angry uncivil criticism becomes much more justifiable. We can say there is no analogy to black people, gay people, or women.

Or, does Israel carry with it the persecuted minority status afforded to Jews throughout history? Israel is surrounded by enemies, awash in antisemitic hate, that would eradicate it if they could. Antisemitism is on the rise worldwide and to deny its terrible power to threaten the lives and livelihoods of Jews around the world, including in America, would be naive. In such a context, to attack with uncivil speech is akin to spouting venom at blacks, gays, and women.

The answer, of course, is that both positions can be true at the same time.

I know that Steven Salaita is not antisemitic. I know it because a Jew and a scholar of Judaism recommended me to him (which eased my initial concerns), we've spoken, I've read his work, I've read more of his Twitter feed than the cherry-picked tweets, I've listened to him speak. I know he is very angry at Israel and challenges the premises and consequences of Zionist thought. I know he he used angry words as he was watching Twitter fill up with the faces of dead Palestinian children. I cannot fault him for this.

Here's a post by Jerry Haber, an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US. He writes:
I would like to address the content of what one writer considers Salaita’s “most hateful tweets”, and, as an intellectual exercise, pose the following question to his detractors.
Had Salaita tweeted or blogged the following:
a. By conflating Jewishness and Israel, Israel is partly responsible when their disproportionate attacks on civilians are followed by regrettable anti-Semitic incidents in Europe.
b. If criticizing Israeli treatment of and attitudes towards Palestinians is anti-Semitic, then insofar as that criticism is justified, and indeed, commendable, so is anti-Semitism. But of course, criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is “anti-Semitism” only in the eyes of the Zionists, who conflate Judaism and Zionism.
c. The IDF spokesperson appears to justify violence committed against the Palestinian people, using techniques that are reminiscent of apologists for ethnic cleansing.
would his detractors still have argued that he is unfit to teach at the University of Illinois? No doubt many would. But I agree with much of those sentiments. So why do they go after Salaita and not go after me?
Either because Salaita’s language is more blunt and vulgar than mine, or because he is a Palestinian American, rather than an American Israeli. I have the creds that he lacks, and so I am protected in ways that he isn’t.
I think this analysis is sharp. To some extent, it's fine. When people on the inside - Jews in this case - criticize their own groups - Israel - it carries different weight than when an outsider does it. But here again, we have to analyze the relevant power dynamics.

In Salaita's perspective, in the context of this summer's war, Israel is the superpower. Whether or not you think the war and Israel's military strategy was justified or not, I find this perspective persuasive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Boycott GoFundMe - Silencing pro-choice voices; Enabling anti-choice voices.

I have a pledge. I hope you'll join me and take it too.

I will not contribute to any GoFundMe campaigns started after 9/9/14 until they treat abortion the same way they treat all other personal medical procedures. 

I have contributed to many campaigns in the past, including just last week (funeral expenses for an unexpected death). I watched as the Darren Wilson GoFundMe campaigns soared into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as the campaign profited off of racists (based on the many comments on the pages before they were deleted).

Now, another story breaks. GoFundMe refuses to let any abortion-related campaigns start - not to fund abortion, not to fund pro-choice messaging. Pro-life groups though; they're fine.

Salon has the story.
Last week, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe pulled a campaign to raise money for an Illinois woman’s abortion. In a message to the woman, identified only as Bailey, GoFundMe said that the fundraiser was not “appropriate” for the site because it contained “subject matter that GoFundMe would rather not be associated with.” In an earlier comment to Salon on its decision to shutdown the campaign, a “customer happiness” representative said that each review is handled on a “case-by-case basis” and, “In this particular case, GoFundMe determined that the fundraising campaign titled ‘Bailey’s Abortion Fund’ would be removed from the site.”
But as of this week, the site will no longer handle campaigns to fund abortion on a case-by-case basis. According to GoFundMe’s updated guidelines (“What’s Not Allowed on GoFundMe“), abortion fundraisers are banned without exception. In addition to prohibiting crowdfunded abortion campaigns, “content associated with or relating to” abortion is also banned.
Clear enough. No abortion. Unless you're pro-life. The article details numerous groups fighting against choice who are fine with GoFundMe. And then there's this one intended to "help" "Bailey" with her pregnancy if she doesn't have an abortion. 

I could have accepted, grudgingly and barely, a decision to stay out of the abortion issue altogether. Now that they have taken sides, I have offered my pledge.

Abortion is a personal medical decision. 

GoFundMe must treat it that way or it deserves to be boycotted, to lose revenue, and to fade into internet oblivion. Or maybe it can reinvent itself as "crowdfunding-for-bigots." I'm sure that's a fine business model, but count me out.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Steven Salaita's Press Conference - My reactions.

Today Steven Salaita gave a press conference. I was there. Full video here.

Salaita spoke, along with with his constitutional lawyer Maria LaHood, one of his employment lawyers, Robert Warrior (chair of American Indian Studies), and Michael Rothberg from English (who read a statement from the MLA).

You can read Salaita's statement here.

I'd like to offer a few key thoughts as an initial summary, in chronological order.

  1. LaHood said that in just the last few years, there were over 200 cases of people at universities being reprimanded, fired, or even litigated against for making anti-Israel statements. She argued that this is sign of a persistent attempt to silence critics of Israel in American higher education. Palestine Solidarity Legal Support will be publishing a study on this in the next month. 
  2. Salaita's lawyers also call this a termination. Their legal strategy is that Salaita was, in fact, already hired, so this is unjust firing.
  1. Salaita himself said many things in his statement worth noting, but you can just read it. His comments on twitter, the real-time nature of it, his teaching record, his concern about academic freedom as a principle, and more. Seriously, it's not long, go read it.
  2. I am struck by how committed he remains to UIUC and his lifetime of scholarship spent challenging orthodoxies. So, here he is now, challenging orthodoxies.
  3. He also revealed that his offer letter specifically references UofI adherence to the 1940 AAUP principles of academic freedom. I've confirmed this is standard. Everyone associated with the AAUP today agrees the UofI violated those principles. Are they going to keep sending that out in the offer letters when they are under AAUP censure (if it comes to that)?
Robert Warrior

In a few ways, his comments were more informative about the process than Salaita's statement
  1. Chancellor Wise didn't engage with Salaita's whole twitter stream, but accepted the cherrypicked inflammatory statements as proof positive that Salaita was not acceptable for UIUC.
  2. Wise initially said that Salaita's social media use "would be monitored" so as to make sure he wasn't using university property to tweet about Israel. Chilling.
  3. Most disturbing, Wise said that Warrior needed to tell Salaita (video here), "We live in a town, we have to shop together, at Target, at Sam's Club, we have to follow a different set of rules." Collegiality is, I think, barely an acceptable norm on which to judge colleagues - i.e. can we function together as a body. Whether we're nice at Target is no way to run a major university hiring decision. In fact, it's not an acceptable way to decide about who to include in anything, not even your country club (though in fact it's just how such things work and perpetuate bias).  
Question and Answer Time
  1. Salaita and his lawyers are not considering any option other than reinstatement, including the possibility of a court injunction mandating reinstatement. He absolutely wants to work at Illinois, even after all this.
  2. His employment lawyer looked eager to do some document discovery and deposing of people. Given the lack of care with some of the statements already made public, I'd be worried if I were in the Chancellor's office. After all (this is me, not the lawyer), they can just settle and avoid discovery, but it takes two to settle. Salaita might choose not to do so anytime soon.
  3. "Do you support the boycott?" - A long long pause, followed by the answer, "I do." After, Salaita explained that he just didn't want to say anything that made it sound like it was his action. He supports all free speech, the freedom to dissent in any number of cases, not just his.
  4. If this case is really not about the donors, but about civility, then the chancellor and trustees should sit down with Salaita and have a dialogue, rather than reading angry tweets and angry letters from donors and letting them decide the situation.
Let me add a few thoughts. As of August 1, I hadn't really heard of Steven Salaita, although I knew something vaguely was going on at Urbana-Champaign.  Like many others, I read his tweets and thought they were harsh, but defended his hiring on the grounds of academic freedom and public engagement. I still believe in those grounds.

But it is increasingly clear that Salaita is an open and engaging teacher who welcomes all evidence-based arguments regardless of viewpoint. UIUC would be lucky to have him in the classroom. As a taxpayer of Illinois, I certainly don't want the state paying hundreds of thousands (or whatever number emerges) in order to have him NOT teach.

More on this to come. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Brief Q&A with John Scalzi - Disability, Lock In, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Lock In is the newest book by the well-known sci-fi author John Scalzi. In my review at Huffington Post, I wrote:
On a certain level, this is a story about "wheelchairs," or rather assistive mobility devices. That's unusual. While many science fiction stories depict advanced technological responses to plagues or injuries, such stories usually involve seemingly miraculous cures. To my knowledge, this is the first science fiction novel based largely around the complexities of providing reasonable accommodations for disability.
The essay I wrote had to cover a lot of ground. It had to feel like a review and it had to engage the complex issues that are invoked by the book. It's a place to start with the conversation, not at all a place to finish. Still, I am encouraged.

Over the last many months, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been floating around twitter. And we do - our books tend to be so western, so white, so hetero, so reinforcing of perceived normative values. My particular focus, of course, is disability as diversity, but to write about that is not to ignore the pressing needs of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and more. 

I am, however, pleased with Scalzi's new book. I felt he wrote right up to the limits of his knowledge of disability issues and nicely wove that material into the book. 

I asked him two questions which he kindly answered.

1. You raise lots of issues about disability in Lock In. What research into these issues as you wrote? Are they issues which you were interested in before trying to flesh out the politics of your premise?
​Some of it I knew, in a very basic sense, from having friends engaged in various communities, in particular the deaf community. This gave me a lay of the land that I could then backstop with additional research. I was casually aware but not deeply engaged in disability issures prior to the book, but once I developed the idea for the novel it was important for me not to just blunder through imagining the development of the Haden culture -- I wanted it to have some resonance with disability cultures that exist today. As I've noted elsewhere, I still run the risk of missing things, but if so it's not for lack of effort. ​ 
2. In Old Man's War, you deal with age (which can be seen as a form of disability) and a new body. In Lock In, it's disability and a new body. Is this a Scalzi theme? Technological responses to the body as it doesn't work as expected? Is that an intentional theme, or more something that I, as a disability writer, detect?
​I think it's true that I am interested in how the body can be extended and as a result what that means for the identity of the person who is "extended" in that fashion -- and obviously as a science fiction writer, the path of that extension will be through technology (rather than through magic, as it might be for fantasy). I don't intentionally work the theme you identifiy -- but that doesn't mean it's not there. Writers often miss themes in their work that others detect.
The main theme in Scalzi's work is his engagement with re-purposing classic genres, this time murder mystery. It's also, in a way that appeals to me, an anti-zombie premise. Zombies are stripped of their mind, their identity, and their bodies just churn forward, based on a simple need to feed. Hadens, on the other hand, retain their identities and minds even as their bodies cease to respond.

Finally - I totally blew it in my review in two instances. The minor one was that I revised the review just before publishing, and I forgot there's a hilarious appearance of a wheelchair in the book. Just one. Originally, though, I wrote, "Technically, no wheelchairs appear ..." Oops.

More interestingly, I entirely missed that the main character, Chris Shane, is intentionally gender neutral. Scalzi uses no pronouns. There's no description of a human body. But I, a man, reading a book written by a man, with the surname Chris, assumed male. That was my mistake.