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Cancel culture comes to the classroom: Professor Deborah Appleman on how teachers are navigating the new culture wars

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Carleton College professor Deborah Appleman about her thought-provoking new book, Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture and the Teacher’s Dilemma.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Deborah Appleman, the Hollis L. Caswell Chair of Educational Studies, and the director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She’s also the author of the fascinating new book, Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma, which discusses how culture war politics are intruding into the classroom. I’m grateful to speak with her about the book and its key ideas and arguments. Deborah, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate your interest and your willingness to talk to me about this important topic.

SEAN SPEER: I suppose a good place to start our conversation is to describe the problem that you’re seeing and hearing from other teachers. Listeners may be familiar with the spilling of the culture war from politics out into the broader society. They may not instinctively think of literature as a place where it may manifest itself. How, Deborah, are culture war politics pervading the classroom, including the books that teachers or professors are assigning? And who is responsible? Is this a left-wing or a right-wing problem, or both?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Well, let me take that last point, which is such an important point, first. As you know the first chapter of my book is called Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right, because one of the things that’s been so astonishing to me is that this pressure of canceling, this culture war, is coming from both liberals and conservatives. Classroom teachers are used to conservative critics who think that the books that teachers choose are inappropriate because of profane language or explicit sexual content. We’ve been dealing with that with support from the American Library Association, and we’re about to celebrate Banned Book Weeks coming up.

We’re sort of used to that. What we’re not used to is the canceling that’s coming from the Left, canceling because of problematic portrayals, because of use of offensive language, and canceling because someone has made a judgment about the appropriateness of the life of an author, for example, Sherman Alexie, and the degree to which that author’s behaviour should keep us from teaching their books. It’s a particular moment in time where we’re being pressed from both sides. And that, of course, in the United States is exacerbated by a lot of movements, a lot of anti-gay movements, by movements of critical race theory, even though the people who talk about it don’t really exactly know what it is, a real backlash.

There’s also a good reason why this has bubbled to the surface, and that is our increasing awareness of students’ mental health. The mental health crisis, if you will, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Adolescence has always been a turbulent time for young people and even normal adolescents has its ups and downs. But we teachers have our own version of the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.” On one hand, we don’t want to have kids read things in our classroom that perpetuate harm.

On the other hand, the purpose of reading literature is to unsettle you, is to hurt you in some ways, and is, maybe, in my opinion, most importantly, giving you the opportunity to feel the hurt of other people. That’s where empathy is built. If we cancel or omit all books from our curriculum that have the potential to create emotional distress, I’m not sure what will be left for reading. We’re leaving aside for young people to learn that important skill of empathy in important works.

SEAN SPEER: In the book, you describe yourself as a progressive educator who is struggling with how notions of social justice and equality can manifest themselves in trends such as cancel culture and trigger warnings that ultimately stand in the way of intellectual pursuits including by removing certain text from the curriculum. As you explain these people ostensibly think that they’re doing right by values that you share. What do they get wrong and why do we need to be careful that even well-intended efforts to address historic wrongs or respect marginalized groups or voices don’t ultimately harm our ability to think and learn?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: That’s such a great question. I think there are a couple of things that they get wrong. Well, the first thing that they get wrong is that they decide a priori for the students. If one of our goals in education is to teach students to think critically, we should do what other academic Gerry Graff said a long time ago, “We should teach the controversy.” We should say, for example, let’s just say the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some low-hanging fruit in a way, this book has come under fire because of its portrayal of people of colour and its use of the N-word.

On the other hand, there are things that we could learn from it. What do you think about how should we approach it? To have a point and counterpoint, I did that with a group of students who we were wanted to read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and we didn’t not teach the book, but we also didn’t hide the controversy. I think teaching the controversy and inviting students to make moral judgments in a protected place is one thing. I just think that there are ways in which the Left is being so arbitrary, removing something and canceling things. That’s one thing that they get wrong.

Another thing that they get wrong is that although we want to avoid using any language that essentializes or hurts people, when you’re dealing with an author like James Baldwin, for example, James Baldwin uses the N-word to shock and to demonstrate to his readers what harm is being done to African American people. He doesn’t want his—or I shouldn’t speak for him, I know, but I can’t imagine given his goals of his writing and his proactiveness that he would want his works to be banned because of an offending word. Sometimes we forgot about the intent of the author.

Another problem, and this is the last one I imagine for this particular question, is what I am calling in the book the problem of presentism. What liberals and others are doing is superimposing our 21st-century moral code onto the 17th, 18th, 19th, and even the beginning part of the 20th century. We expect the use of pronouns, the way we deal with women, and the way we deal with other marginalized groups, to be reflective of the hard lessons that we’ve learned about what it means to treat people equally. But I don’t think that you can hold someone hostage who lived centuries ago to what it is that we’ve learned.

We can see what mistakes they’re making and how they regard people and then that can be the beginning of a conversation with young people about how we have grown. Writers write the world that they’ve lived in and we can’t punish them for writing a world that didn’t exist when they were writing.

SEAN SPEER: It’s worth emphasizing that your book is also highly critical of right-wing efforts to either micromanage curriculum through things like standardization or to similarly remove books that conservatives don’t like. The net effect though is, as I interpret it, your small-l liberalism puts you in something of unique company in today’s polarized world. Why do you think this has happened, Deborah? What has been the reaction to your book, including within progressive circles?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: I’m holding my breath about that last part. I’m fully expecting to be canceled myself. I’m fully expecting that there are going to be some people whose projects of social justice and whose works work in the classroom and in our field of literacy education I really admire. But I feel like they’ve gone overboard in removing from students the opportunity to confront troubled texts, and that we need to name them as being troubling. I have to admit that it’s a really uncomfortable position for me to be in. Once upon a time, I used to just really berate the new critics who would say that you had to separate the author from the text and just look at the text as this discrete autonomous thing.

Now, I’m saying that about Sherman Alexie. I’m saying that about Junot Diaz. I’m saying that about a variety of authors, who I think have had their personal lives—I’m not even going to use the word unfairly but maybe irrelevantly—used to judge whether their books are teachable or not. It is a really uncomfortable position for me to be in. What it makes me think about is that maybe part of the problem that we’re having in the United States and elsewhere is that we reify these positions in this bifurcated way and put ourselves into these ideological silos.

We think these people don’t believe what we believe and then there’s no crosstalk. I’m finding myself really stuck in the middle and realizing that now I can see merit on one side, merit on the other side, but that both sides are overreacting into people who are suffering the most are students who have the opportunity to tread treacherous waters with people who are trained to do so.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come later in the conversation to the inherent presumption about students’ ability to confront some of these so-called “trouble texts.” Before we get there, I want to ask you about something you write in the book. You write that “Cancel culture is not only intellectually impoverished, it’s spiritually impoverished as well.” What do you mean? Why don’t you elaborate on that line?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Sure. I think that this is related in a maybe surprising way to some previous work that I’ve done by teaching at a high-security prison for men for the past 15 years. What I’ve learned is that human beings are complex creatures who make mistakes, make missteps, say things that they shouldn’t, do things that they shouldn’t. This is something that Brian Stevenson in Just Mercy wrote, but it’s one of my incarcerated students’ favorite quotes: “Everybody’s better than the worst they’ve ever done.”

What I’ve seen with cancel culture is this wholesale, relentless removing of someone from the public discourse where once they have a misstep, you can think of a J.K. Rowlings, for example, and a whole dust-up of some things that she said and what meant by it and was she willing to apologize. I’m not demeaning the importance of the issues that are under the burden of concern, but I think if we’re going to be in the world together in meaningful ways, we are all going to say things that are wrong, write things that are wrong, do things that are wrong.

There’s something about forgiveness, second chances, the ability to look at someone holistically, and to see what can we learn from our mistakes instead of being sentenced to a literary Siberia. That’s what I mean by it being spiritually bankrupt. That there are ways in which as human beings we have to grow into a kind of intellectual forgiveness that I just don’t see happening on either side.

SEAN SPEER: How is this climate of culture war contentiousness affecting faculty and students? What have you seen, Deborah, in terms of what you describe in the book as a “brutal variation of bullying”?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Yes. First of all, I want to say that it’s somewhat easier to navigate these waters as a college professor than it is as a public school teacher, partly because of the age of our students and partly because of different kinds of laws of privacy and protection. We’re not always held as immediately accountable to parents, whether they be helicopter parents or not, as a public school teacher is.

There are ways in which there is a degree of freedom that I have that my colleagues who are teaching in middle school and high school do not have. I feel that there’s every choice that you make, every curricular choice that you make, is so laden right now with what would happen if somebody called and objected to this. Not just outside of the classroom but inside the classroom too.

The anecdote that I told in the book about students a priori telling a professor that they’re not going to read The Bluest Eye because it has incest and that’s triggering for them before the class even begins, before they even know that they can trust that person as a guide, before they can imagine that that sensitive, well-trained teacher would make accommodations because that’s part of the work that we do. Walking into a classroom being afraid that you’re going to offend. When you offend in a classroom, you might lose a student’s ability to come to what it is that you want to learn together, in a clear way. That’s a tremendous loss.

It’s not the same thing as saying I’m sorry to somebody at a cocktail party. It’s an enduring and I think sacred relationship that can be imperiled by the choices that we make. I think that’s really difficult. Then there are also people who are suspect to political considerations. When I think about teachers in Texas and teachers in Florida, when I think about the fact that someone could lose their job, I know that I’m living in a privileged space protected by tenure. When I think about public school teachers and angry school board meetings and people not understanding, and teachers who I personally know who have resigned because it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

When you think about under-resourced schools, you think about the pandemic, you think about all of these things and now having to defend what you’re teaching to a whole host of people and to not be respected or trusted for the professional that you are can be backbreaking. Then everybody is afraid to not be politically correct. I’m a little afraid to be truthful. I can’t say that I haven’t lost any sleep on this. I’m ready to face what’s happening but I also know that it’s a risk. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to take that risk, but not everybody is. That’s one of the things actually that motivated me to write the book.

SEAN SPEER: That’s terrific. A ton of insight there, Deborah. You mentioned the issue of tenure. Tenure, of course, in theory, is supposed to give university or college faculty the security to take risks in their research and teaching. Job termination may not be the main threat here. It’s something less concrete but possibly more powerful in the form of social censure. Can you talk about the role of social pressure to effectively constrain what’s taught, discuss, and debated in the classroom?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Absolutely. I think that’s a really a key point that it’s not about job termination but it’s about the fabric of our teaching lives as we live it. It’s really expensive to be mistaken for a social conservative if you believe in the things that I believe in. If you believe in social justice and equity for all, if you believe that incarcerated people deserve a great education, if you believe that urban schools need all of our attention and more, if you believe that every child can succeed from college to the workplace. To be labeled as a conservative or as a person who doesn’t care about equity for all can be really harmful.

I also think that it’s tricky as teachers get older. At first I feel like in my first 10 years of teaching, I was given the vibe of being younger. Of course, maybe I’m cool because I’m listening to the same soundtrack as my students and I am espousing these liberal things. Now that I’ve been a teacher for over 40 years, I can easily be labeled as a person who doesn’t get it and who’s too conservative. That’s not going to help create the relationship with my students that I want to have.

The other thing, to go back to something that I said earlier, I don’t want my students to think that I’m someone who’s going to make them read something that will hurt them. On the other hand, I don’t want to baby them either by protecting them from the true debates that we want to have. I do feel a little bit of social pressure. In November I’m going to go to a conference that I’ve gone to for a very long time, the National Council of Teachers of English. There are going to be people there. People who are named and not named in my book, who are going to be pretty mad at me. They may or may not come to my session.

I hope we can have a civil conversation, but it’s going to be hard to be judged. Nobody likes to be judged negatively. There’s a way in which, and this is where I think things got out of hand, that we were all writing this feel-good wave that said, of course, we are not going to teach Sherman Alexie because we’re feminist. Of course, we’re not going to use any book with the N-word because we’re anti-racist. We’re riding that wave in an overly generalized way that made us lose the nuances of individual choices.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, Deborah, at some level, you’re arguing that students need to confront ideas or arguments that they may find distasteful or even offensive as part of the process of learning. Why do you think that notion has come to be so challenged? Do we underestimate students’ ability to withstand contentious content?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: I appreciate that question so much. Two things. I began my career as a high school English teacher. If my life had turned out that that was all I ever was, that was everything that I needed to be, like Robert Frost’s “figure of virtues.” I ended up getting laid off and then did what people do when they don’t know what to do with themselves. I went to graduate school and as Robert Frost also says “way leads on to way.” I have always been astonished by the intelligence of adolescents and of their ability to grapple with really hard things.

I think that what our society has done, and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic, is we’ve infantilized them. During the pandemic, I had so many of my college students taking a class from their childhood bedroom with their stuffed animals behind them. It’s hard to be a grown-up thinker in that context. I think, again, partly because of our concern for students’ mental health, we’ve mistaken our students for being what we call snowflakes.

Now, where you and I come from, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a terrible thing but that we have over-assigned a level of vulnerability to them that I don’t really think they need. They’ll let us know what they can handle, and we don’t have to make some of these a priori discussions for that. I think that the way that we’ve regarded young people during this pandemic and post-pandemic time, as well as not being able to give students enough credit for how sophisticated they are, is part of what’s happened.

SEAN SPEER: What would you say, though, to the idea that many historic literary figures including Poe or Hemingway or Fitzgerald were misogynists or racist or whatever? How do we grapple with historic record and how should we make determinations about which, if any, historic literature should remain outside of the contemporary classroom?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. The first thing that I would like to say is that a classic should not be read just because it has been read in the past. I’m old. I went to high school over 50 years ago, and the list of the most commonly taught titles in English classes is almost the same, with the exception of Toni Morrison, as it was when I was in school in the ’60s and the early ’70s. That’s wrong. That should change. I don’t think that people should be revered because things have been read over and over again.

I don’t want my argument to be seen as a preservationist argument in any way, but I think that if we start doing a moral calibration of artists, writers, composers, our museum walls are going to be empty. Our concert halls are going to be empty. We’re not going to be able to look at Picasso. We’re not going to be listening to some operas. We’re not going to be reading certain things. Yes, Hemingway was a misogynist. Let’s learn about the gender critical theory and let’s look at the way that women are portrayed, let’s look at the ways in which his view of women may have seeped into the book, but let’s not necessarily say that he shouldn’t be read at all because he was a jerk.

There’s also this argument that I’ve heard from some people like there’s a difference between whether someone that we’re censoring is living or dead because we want to keep them from earning money or something like that. That doesn’t make any sense to me either. I don’t know the answer to that. I know that people should not get away with doing terrible things to other people, but I don’t know what that means about my relationship to their work, and I don’t know who it is who can be an arbiter of moral behaviour in a way that is consistent and fair across centuries, across generations, et cetera. I don’t have the answer, but I think we should be asking the question.

SEAN SPEER: Let me turn to my penultimate question. In light of all of this, what is your advice to teachers and professors? How can they navigate the climate that you outline in the book?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Thanks for that. I think that to be aware that it’s a complex and nuanced topic to have critical conversations like the one that we’re having together with their colleagues to think through things together. Too often, teaching is such an isolating activity. It’s ironic because it’s one that’s filled with people in the classroom, but we often make curricular decisions and hard decisions alone as we are preparing. To have that conversation, to get support from professional organizations, to always give students choices, which I always did.

It’s like, if there are ways in which you can’t read this because of pressure from home or because it makes you uncomfortable, let’s have another choice. Not every book should be read by everyone, but that’s not the same thing as saying they should be read by no one. I also think that people need to talk with themselves to be able to do a calibration of their own moral compass. Why do I have this point of view? Is it because I really believe it or because it feels too politically expensive to go against the grain? To say, “Oh yes, me too.” I think teachers should do that.

In the book, what I tried to do in every chapter is to have some specific strategies, whether it’s with pairing text, teaching the controversy, giving some what I call “escape hatches”, not keeping things from kids, letting students decide some of those difficult choices together, informing parents, educating parents, and really getting a support group instead of just collapsing on it. Nobody wants to be a culture warrior. That’s not what teachers signed up to be, but it seems like that’s what we are right now. If we are, then let’s give it a good fight.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up on that particular question: What led you to raise your hand? Why did you ultimately choose to speak up?

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Ultimately, I chose to speak out—actually, it goes all the way back to Sherman Alexie, because as a teacher in an urban school with Native students, I saw the power of the work that he did and how students responded to him. That very high school was starting to remove his books from the shelves. Coterminously there was something that I wrote about with Of Mice and Men, which is one of the very, very first books that I taught more than 40 years ago and they just banned it and said, “Oh, we’ve got some worksheets and other kinds of things that can do the work of this book.”

To me, that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I said, I cannot acquiesce to this, at least I have to say something about why it feels wrong to me, even though I’m sympathetic to people being upset with Sherman Alexie or knowing that Of Mice and Men can be problematic. I’m not saying that there aren’t issues, but I just felt like the move to remove them completely from the lives of young people when I know what work they could do for them was just something I couldn’t keep silent on.

SEAN SPEER: The book is Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma. Professor Deborah Appleman, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

DEBORAH APPLEMAN: Thank you so much, Sean. It was a pleasure talking to you.