Compassion and Confusion: Morrison, Dante and the Transition to Distance Learning

As I mentioned in our English 424 class, something I immediately noticed as I looked at The Eagle of Divine Hope the first time was that there was a key of sorts presented along with it, telling those perceiving it how they should go about perceiving it. It especially interested me because all of the stars are the same, so the distinction being the only thing to differentiate them felt like something that stuck out for a reason, although I’m not quite sure why yet. It did remind me of something I’ve also noticed in Morrison’s writing as well as Dante’s, and that’s the idea of the author having control of the lens while you are consuming their work. Although it may seem open for interpretation and that it is at the reader’s discretion to determine how to digest the material, the author is able to manipulate the perspective of the reader without them realizing it. Confusion has been something that has felt like a struggle throughout this course for me personally, particularly as I navigate these texts on my own in this online format. However, through Dr. McCoy’s guidance I have come to see this as something that I can utilize to my advantage and work with in order to better understand the material and what I am learning from it.

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is representative of something larger than itself, similarly to the Eagle. One way that this is made clear by Morrison throughout Paradise is her use of capitalization. It it portrayed as a sort of entity rather than an object, and it is regarded in different ways by different groups of people inhabiting the town. This is something that interests me in conversation with what I wrote about the Eagle, and the way the key of sorts guides the perception of it. This reminds me in a way of Dante, his circles of hell and the guidance this structure and the structure of the cantos gives to the reader as they embark on the journey with him. The oven is subject to the perception of people based on their background and experiences, as is the eagle. However, the eagle has a key of sorts, which directs people to perceive  it in a certain way, and the oven does not. My peer, Micah, mentions that it is easy to get used to the capitalization of the Oven when reading the novel, and that its significance can go over one’s head as they read.

Beware the Furrow of His Brow or Be the Furrow of His Brow: these two interpretations of what is written on the Oven, separated by generations, mean completely different things. However, they are derived from the same thing, which I find very interesting. The same can be said about literature. We may all be reading the same texts, but our perspectives differ based on what we carry with us into our interpretation and understanding of it.

Speaking of interpretations: the fact that there are so many interpretations of the word interpret feels ironic to me. A word that is all about perception is perceived in so many ways, and none is more accurate than another. They are all accurate in different contexts. Perhaps the same could be said about the differing interpretations of the text on the oven’s lip. They are nearly composed of the same words, however, hold entirely different meaning. The youth of ruby interpret “being the furrow of his brow” as a sort of “justice” (87) while the older residents feel this is not accurate. Although there is a subtle difference in language and phrasing, the entire idea behind the text itself and what it signifies is flipped.

Collaboration is the through line of this course. It’s something I entered college afraid of after experiencing projects in high school that were meant to be a group effort and ended up becoming my individual work or the work of me and a couple other students because the group members would not contribute equally. The English department and this course in particular have emphasized for me the value behind collaboration and the meaning behind showing up for yourselves and your peers. 

This idea of collaboration is relevant within Morrison’s text because the oven’s readers need to utilize it in order to come to understand what the oven says and its significance. There are two opposing perspectives in this case, which can cause conflict and disagreement. These varying interpretations, in this case, mean very different things. However, Morrison emphasizes the subtle differences of these interpretations and how such a small difference in phrasing can make such a huge difference in meaning. Interpretation is a necessary step before collaboration: Morrison emphasizes that this generational difference is what causes these groups to enter into a collaboration, bringing their interpretations to the table in aim to best decipher this message and create meaning. Bringing differing interpretations to the table can be a trigger for conflict, certainly, but it also can allow for the meaning that is made to be much more wise and significant due to the varying perspectives coming into the process. 

In Paradise, Morrison writes, “Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.” To read this line of the novel now was incredibly validating. To know that paradise isn’t some perfect, ideal world, free from struggle or burden; rather having that responsibility and shouldering that burden is the whole purpose, the entire point. Collaboration, for me, has become liberating. It has become less about the individual with each day, each meeting; with this pandemic. It has become more about a conscious effort to focus on creating something powerful together, not just in spite of circumstance but perhaps even because of it.

While Paradiso functions on a larger scale than Paradise, they both ask questions about morality, punishment, and justice, and each attempts to answer them in their own ways. Something valuable I learned in working with these texts is that confusion is valuable and meaningful and not something to run from. Confusion was purposeful, it was something I was able to use to my advantage during this time rather than view as a roadblock, or something holding me back. Everything we attempt to accomplish during this time has come with its fair share of new obstacles. This is new territory for all of us. However, these circumstances and realities very greatly for all of us. This is always true, not just in a pandemic. And this, to me, is reflective of the work my classmates and I have embarked upon with these texts. Though the context may be more challenging for some than others, more familiar for some than others, our varying understandings allowed us to all come together and create something, to share an understanding and to grow as thinkers and humans.

I am extremely grateful for the humanity that was shown to me in this process. My peers and I are dealing with circumstances outside of this academic work and have been able to support each other through these challenges, even when it wasn’t about the coursework. This kind of camaraderie is a side effect of collaboration that I have always taken note of since starting at Geneseo, but it has become particularly important to me in these strange circumstances. I am grateful for a department that fosters such growth and compassion, and I am grateful to have worked with such kind and intelligent people throughout the course of this semester, and to have gone through these transitions with so much support behind me. I am also proud of my own ability to push through these circumstances and to navigate complex texts to the best of my ability and to contribute among personal and global challenges.

outside the [box]

I chose to take this course because of the positive experience I had last fall working with Dr. McCoy in English 203. I experienced a lot of growth during my time in that course, particularly because it was my first semester in college; in fact, it was the very first college class I ever walked into on my first day here. Something I recalled about working with Dr. McCoy in the past was the emphasis she put on practice, and how important it was to keep progressing throughout the semester. I was excited to take this course because although I knew that the subject matter would be difficult, I also knew I would learn a lot and expand my mind as a thinker and as a reader. Not only exposing myself to literature that discusses things such as the complexities of race, but also literature that takes more than a first read to process and understand was a good way for me to recognize that growth was necessary as a student of English here at Geneseo. I just didn’t know how much. 

Reflecting on the course epigraph reminds me of something Dr. McCoy discussed with us in class, and that is her goal for the semester: that she become irrelevant by the end and that we be able to function on our own as a class and as a group of thinkers. Throughout the semester, our conversations about the literature we have been reading and its real-world applications have become more natural, and we have become more comfortable digesting it, working with it, and sharing our interpretations of it. Although at first there was a lot of silence in the conversations, I found that as other students began taking up more space, so did I.  I also have felt inspired by my classmates and the wisdom that their experiences and perspectives add to the way in which they understand the course material. This class has really allowed me to become a more open thinker and receive other interpretations and ideas more willingly. 

 I have often felt in the past that my place in these discussions was to take a backseat. Especially coming from a conservative, small-town high school, where my opinions were often not well received. I was afraid to say something wrong, or to even say anything at all. Something that I have learned about myself over the course of the semester is that I am completely capable of participating in these conversations. The literature we dealt with in this course was complex, and not simple to understand or unpack. At the beginning of the semester, I struggled to feel comfortable sharing my ideas with the class or with my group during discussions. However, as the semester progressed, I felt the course began equipping me with the tools I needed to have these conversations. With practice, things that once scared me came naturally. When I began participating more, I started to understand the importance of participating while these conversations were going on. I was receiving feedback, I was expanding my perspective, and most importantly, I was helping other thinkers in the room to develop their thoughts, too. The more I shared during class discussion, the more I felt I grew and learned, both as a student and as a person. 

Although this class definitely made me a better listener, it also gave me more confidence in sharing my own ideas, even (or especially) if they felt a bit outside the box. I felt myself becoming less afraid to say things even if I was unsure if they were strange interpretations of the text, and I felt myself becoming more comfortable with helping classmates formulate their understandings as well. Being comfortable with sharing opinions and interpretations is something that has been challenging for me, and I have felt myself get much better at it because of this class and the difficult texts we have been working with. This is a skill that I will carry into my other classes in my time here at Geneseo and ultimately into my life outside of college and academia. In fact, I have already noticed the ways in which this skill has helped me to feel comfortable participating in my Women’s and Gender Studies 310 class this semester, which has dealt with similar conversations and subjects. I found my disciplines overlapping in a very rewarding way within the work that I was doing in these two courses this semester.

I also learned an important lesson during the process of crafting one of my blog posts. I misunderstood a passage in one of the texts, Medical Apartheid, and ended up writing a blog post that unintentionally argued an untrue point which perpetuated harmful, untrue ideas. This misstep allowed me to realize the power that my words had, particularly on a public blog forum. It was a real world application of the conversations we had been having in class, and it showed me just how important it was for me, a privileged person, to work carefully with texts about these subjects. It reminded me to make sure that I was fact-checking and reading these texts carefully rather than utilizing parts that I thought I understood without fully dissecting the surrounding context that was a bit more unclear and confusing to me at first read. This allowed me to notice something about myself as a reader, and although it is unfortunate that this is how it occurred, I learned just how easy it can be to unintentionally perpetuate harmful things about minority groups and just how important it is to be cautious when having these conversations. I had absolutely no intentions of doing so, which was an important reminder and wake up call that even unintentional missteps can perpetuate harmful stereotypes without even knowing that they are doing so. 

This is an important lesson that I am grateful to the course and to Dr. McCoy for teaching me. Public blogging is no different than social media in that it is accessible to future employers and is something you can be held accountable for for the rest of your life.  It is preached, particularly to my generation, that maintaining a clean reputation on the internet is incredibly important because it is something that can always be traced back to you even if you try to get rid of it. However, often in academic circles, this is something that isn’t even considered or discussed. The time that Dr. McCoy took to carefully explain the implications of public writing is something I am grateful for, and her careful attention to the blog allowed for me to be protected and correct my mistake.

Some of the characters in the literature we read for this course go through a process of growth and taking control of their circumstances, too. Many of the novels that we have read throughout the semester have themes of challenging circumstances pushing characters to transform and grow. This is something that hit particularly close to home for me this semester. I struggled this semester to manage the challenges of my personal life with succeeding academically. However, I feel that I was able to persevere and do as much as I can to both prioritize self-care and be there for the people who needed me at home while still putting time into my schoolwork. 

Although this semester challenged me personally in many ways, I am grateful for the ways that it challenged me academically. Although my physical presence in class was not as consistent as I would have liked it to have been throughout the semester, I tried as much as I could to prioritize my mental health while showing up for myself academically. Over the course of the semester, I found it easier to show up for myself, and to share my thoughts and ideas as we progressed through the texts and conversations that came along with them. I wish, in hindsight, that I had been able to be more physically present, because that is where the important work of this course is done. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the growth that I have experienced during this semester.

so what?

For my Women’s and Gender Studies 310 class this semester, Race, Class and Gender, our final essay prompt asks us to discuss the importance of intersectionality and the course material in relation to our major(s) and our academic discipline(s). Although I spend a lot of time in that class thinking about the real world implications, I had never spent time reflecting on the ways in which it connected to my major. I was excited by this prompt, because immediately, so many ideas came to mind. When I sat down to begin writing this paper,  I was struck with the countless connections to this English 101 course. It was very clear to me that conversations about social justice and intersectionality connected in many ways to my English major and my goals in regards to it. Something I have appreciated about my major from day one here at Geneseo was its awareness of the value of interdisciplinarity, and understanding that disciplines are more connected than people often acknowledge. 

Although this is an English course, there are deep connections to many other disciplines around campus in the material that we are discussing and covering. This is something that I have noticed within many courses within the department as I progress through the major, but it is a big reason that I chose to enroll in this course in particular. I knew that this would be a course that I would value for reasons other than the growth it would provide me within my major. I knew that there would be value outside of the skills that I would gain within English as a discipline, and I knew that exposing myself to literature that discussed things people often shy away from talking about would allow me to learn information that my education may otherwise not expose me too. This semester certainly exposed me to ideas and conversations that I had not yet encountered within my education, and in many ways, this was problematic to me. Realizing that the history I have been exposed to avoided the harsh realities of the way that medicine’s history has horrifically harmed and abused black and minority communities was a wake up call. It made me question the education system and has made me feel that I need to continue to seek out courses that will provide me with perspectives I have not yet been exposed to. 

In class today as we were working on and discussing our final reflective essays, some of my peers with majors in STEM shared that although they entered this course expecting it to just be a requirement to complete, it ended up really shifting their perspective and understanding of the medical field. In my group, we discussed that science is often only seen in an extremely positive light, and that the dark past of medical history is pretty much ignored and erased as people progress through their schooling in these disciplines. Although a few people shared that they had entered this course to fulfill a requirement, it ended up opening their eyes to something incredibly relevant to their intended careers.

We have been talking about the importance of getting to the “so-what?” within our essays. Something I am grateful to this course for is the way that it teaches every student who takes it the importance of acknowledging information that is often ignored. My major is something I love and am extremely proud to be a part of, and this prompt I was assigned in my Women’s & Gender Studies course made me really reflect on why. Every student that enters a course like this one comes out with a new perspective and understanding of not only the material they have worked with, but of the attitudes with which to approach their own disciplinary, academic and career goals.

middle school braces

When I was in middle school, I got braces. Just like most of my friends in my Catholic, private middle school did. They hurt, and they were a pain to take care of, and I hated the appointments. I loved that I got to choose new colors for the rubber bands every time I went in. But what I remember most about my experience with braces was that they were a privilege.

I am the daughter of a single mom. Every appointment, every adjustment, every time I entered the orthodontist’s office, I was aware of just how expensive this endeavor was. For my friends, braces were just an annoyance, a part of growing up. For me, they were a bill near impossible to pay. 

I have bad teeth in my genes. My dad’s first dental appointment was late into his thirties. He is still incredibly afraid of the dentist. I have been aware from a young age that dental work was a lot more than just a mundane, irritating part of life. Straightening my teeth was both a privilege and a health necessity — anatomically, my teeth were bad enough that if they weren’t fixed they would end up permanently damaging my jaw. However, the braces felt necessary for reasons other than that, too. Cosmetically, I had a huge gap between my two front teeth. I had crooked bottom teeth and an underbite. My smile was far from up to society’s standards. And my mom struggled to pay off the bill to fix that. 

In class, we discussed the idea that teeth serve as an indicator of one’s social status. We read two articles that supported this. First, we read an article from The Washington Post called “The Painful Truth About Teeth” that talked about an event that was hosted in Maryland where dentists volunteered to fix people’s teeth for free. Hundreds of people were lined up in the bitter cold, and more people than could be served waited copious amounts of time, some ten or more hours, just to be told they had to come back the next day because there was not enough time left in the day for them to be helped. 

The fact that the need was so high for this service is a sign that dental care is not accessible for those in the United States, particularly those who are not well off financially. Even with decent or good insurance, dental care is often not covered. As Dr. McCoy mentioned in class, sometimes dental care is regarded as a luxury, but often it is a basic healthcare need, particularly with issues like a tooth abscess, for example, which can be life-threatening. This distinction is not at the discretion of the patient, but rather, at the discretion of insurance companies who are profiting off of people instead of helping them.

In my group last class, we talked about the books we have read for this course throughout the semester. Adrianna posed a question: which of these novels do you see as possibly coming true? We discussed the idea that we felt that aspects of all of the novels coming true were sadly completely feasible. And although we are not living in a post-apocalyptic world, it is easy to see that there are sometimes there are elements of all of these novels that connect to our reality, both historically and currently.

Assumptions Regarding Consent

By Ashley Hausrath, Kat Johnson, Michael Meegan, Joey Luconte, Bryan Wager, and Anonymous

In class we’ve discussed the importance of consent and informed consent in particular; informed consent is important because it shows respect to other individuals. Washington also addresses informed consent in Medical Apartheid, particuarly as it relates to the medical field. Washington quotes Dr. Sadiq Wali, who served as the chief medical director at the hospital where a nonconsensual experiment took place, when explaining informed consent: “‘(informed consent in medical parlance) has to do with the patients being told the good as well as the side effects of the drugs to be administered’” (Washington, 392-393). Here, Dr. Wali (and Washington) seemed to indicate that for there to be informed consent, one needs to enter the situation as someone who is “informed,” meaning that they enter the situation knowing all relevant information regarding risks and rewards, and have the ability to remove themselves from the situation if they feel necessary. 

While Washington argues that all necessary information needs to be provided beforehand, Butler’s Clay’s Ark provokes its readers to question Washington’s definition. In “Present 4,” Eli tells the Maslin family: “‘We [the Clay’s Ark community] got together and decided that for your sake and ours, people in your position should be protected from too much truth too soon” (Butler, 471). The Clay’s Ark community fears that giving outsiders information about the organism too early would scare the outsiders and make them take drastic actions to escape. In a way, this makes sense because if Blake and his daughters get violent, the Clay’s Ark community may be forced to hurt them to prevent the spread of the infection. It can be justified as a protection, rather than as a withholding of information from the outsiders. Lupe argues this point in her conversation with Rane. Lupe had originally stated they weren’t going to hurt Rane, but she warns Rane that her “hostile” behavior will force them to hurt her: “‘You’re going to fight us every chance you get, aren’t you. You’re going to make us hurt you’” (Butler, 521). If the outsiders begin to act violently or manage to escape, the community will need to use violence to either subdue or kill them before they can start an outbreak. So it seems as if the Clay’s Ark community chooses to withhold information for the sake of safety for those outside of the community—a choice that they believe to be the lesser of two evils. 

We’ve dealt with a similar issue in class before while discussing deception studies with Dr. Chapman. In our Skype call with him, Dr. Chapman explained how deception studies are necessary because individuals might be more likely to align their behavior with specific results if they are given all of the information. We can see here that knowing certain information or providing too much information at a certain time can lead to different results and reactions by the participants of the study. Researchers who use deception studies are employing a similar technique to that the members of the Clay’s Ark community; they withhold certain information in order to guide reactions. For the researchers, withholding information allows them to get genuine and unbiased data for the improvement of public health; meanwhile, the Clay’s Ark community thinks that withholding information will help protect against the escape and uncontrolled spreading of the organisms. Both situations reflect how releasing too much information at one time can lead to more problems not only for those in power but for the vulnerable as well. Particularly for the Clay’s Ark situation, the side effects are extreme and might justify their giving consent at a controlled pace. 

At the same time, not providing information to those entering the situation before they enter it would be considered a violation of informed consent. Washington says that informed consent consists of giving all individuals that are involved information about both the risk and rewards of a situation, and she’s depicted the extremes of how violations of informed consent negatively impact individuals. This is also reflected in Clay’s Ark itself: Keira seems to disagree with the community’s decision, for after Eli speaks to them, Keira tells him that “not knowing is worse” and they would try their hardest to escape regardless. Even Eli himself disagrees with withholding information, for he tells the Maslin family that he was the “minority of one, voting for honesty” (Butler, 471). Through the characters’ disagreement, Butler makes us think about an interesting question: is it ever right to withhold information (not have informed consent) if it would be safer? In analyzing this question, our group noticed that both the Clay’s Ark community and deception study researchers might rely too much on assumptions when making decisions about consent. Deception studies operate under the assumption that every participant would react in a similar way, that they would all be alright with being given the information after they’ve went through the study. As told to us by Dr. Chapman, this wasn’t the case, for one participant felt that their consent was violated because the information was withheld. In the same way, the characters in Clay’s Ark are making decisions about informed consent without knowing fully about the situation. The Clay’s Ark community assumes that giving information later (once the organism has taken a better hold) is the better option because it lessens the chance of violence and don’t really consider that individuals in the other situation would want to know more and know beforehand. This is particularly important considering every member within that community was put in the same situation when they first entered. They’ve all experienced being on the other side and feeling that “not knowing is worse” and yet choose to withhold information anyway (Butler, 471). The community is operating under the assumption that these individuals would accept this information being withheld as protection. Eli, the only Clay’s Ark community member depicted in the book to disagree with the withholding of information, references this. When Blake insists that he would be able to help the Clay’s Ark community despite Eli trying to tell him otherwise, Eli says “‘Assume that I’m at least as complex of a man as you are” (Butler, 471). It’s perhaps significant that Eli, the “minority of one” who voted for honestly, mentions assumptions and how acting with limited information can be destructive and wrong. Ultimately, it seems as if Butler leaves the issue about withholding consent unanswered but urges individuals to act with as much consideration as possible and not to assume. Consent is a process that involves the decisions of the individuals who are being acted upon, so it is important to consider how those individuals would feel about the situation. There needs to be less assumptions and more attempts at understanding the situation and the individuals as a whole.

As Easy As ABC

In my work with Dr. McCoy in English 203 last fall, we studied Percival Everett. Interestingly, the chapter headings for Zulus that we have been discussing in class come from a collection of poetry he wrote, titled re:f (gesture), published in 2006. They function in different ways in these pieces, and it has been interesting discussing them in a new context.

The poetry within itself was incredibly interesting to study. As a Creative Writing major, I was intrigued by the idea of structuring a poem (or collection of poems, depending on how you decide to see it) this way. It seemed to me like a lofty challenge, but it was one Everett pulled off. One of my favorite parts about the way he approached it was how eventually he would reference things that didn’t match the letter at all — for example, A being for something that doesn’t even start with A. We were prompted in this class to begin to attempt a poem of the same structure for ourselves. I ended up finishing mine. Although I don’t feel it is one of my strongest pieces, the challenge was incredibly fun to attempt and try my hand at, and I felt that I got a look into the process Everett went through while crafting this piece.

As we discussed in class, the alphabet is something that is very accessible to us. This can be seen in the fact that everyone in the room knew the ABC song by heart. Although it was lighthearted and humorous for us, college students, to be singing the alphabet in class, there was also certainly meaning in the fact that this many years after learning it, all of us still knew it. Of course we know the alphabet — it’s necessary for us to navigate the world in many ways. But we still know the song, too. And the song functioned for us as a vehicle to gain and retain that knowledge.

So utilizing the alphabet as a way to structure or organize something is a very accessible and tangible method. It is interesting to discuss the ways in which this piece informs the rest of the text, and to notice that it can function differently in different scenarios.

Not yet.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Like everyone, he was more than a simple decision, more than a simple document, more than what he was most remembered by. He was a human being, with complexities and layers.

But he was a slave owner, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

It is May 2019. I sit in the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, NY, my hometown, Hamilton playbill in hand. I have been counting down the days until I finally got the opportunity to see this show — one that had so inspired me as a writer but also as a human being. When the lights go down and the show begins, I am filled with joy. The familiar first notes of the show begin to play. This story is one of triumph over circumstance, one of emotional complexity, told by a cast entirely composed of people of color (with the exception of the role of King George). In so many ways, it is groundbreaking. It is written by a Puerto Rican; it combines the art of hip-hop with the art of musical theatre.

An audience composed of mostly white people witness the jubilant, expressive show and receive it with hardly any movement or enthusiasm. It is impossible for me not to dance in my seat. I struggle to not sing (and terribly rap) along, I move my head to the beat. I smile, I laugh, and God knows I cry, too. The show reminds me just how powerful music and theatre and the arts can be. It reminds me of the bravery of the human spirit. It reminds me why I love being a writer so much. I feel out of place as I receive the show so intensely. The audience around me feels no different than the audience I watched A Christmas Carol with a few years ago.

There is a line in the show:

“Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.”

“Not yet.”

It takes place in a song about winning the war. It is one of the most important moments of the show in my eyes — not simply because of the events but because of the way the characters respond to them. The complexity of this victory is something that reminds me of things we are dealing with today. For example, when same-gender marriage was legalized in the United States only a few years ago, many people joyfully proclaimed, “the war is over!” Meanwhile, I got the news at a diner sitting across the table from my dad, sitting in a tiny rural town, knowing I was not yet out and knowing that I would be having a lot of conversations about this topic now today. Sure, a battle had been won, but there was work to do.

The complexity of these things is something that we have spent time discussing in this class so far this semester, and it is an important reminder that nothing is ever as simple as it may seem. For example, reading Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson prompted some interesting discussions about things I personally had never even thought about before. One of these was the complexity of experiencing the joys of life and being a human while also being forced into terrible circumstances/conditions that are out of your control. Fortune was a slave but also obviously felt joy and happiness, and the complexity of feeling that within the chains of slavery is so interesting to me. I am grateful to this class for being a place that allows these conversations to occur.

In the audience of Hamilton, I was thinking about a lot of things. But one of them was the complexity of these characters that were being portrayed by a cast of color. The show is composed of many characters who were most certainly slave owners, but the show is full of themes of freedom — the complexity of this show being performed by a cast of color is one that reminded me of the types of subject matter we were dealing with in this course. It is never as simple as what you see on the surface.