A Reflection on the Realities of English - Miles Beckwith


There are things we know with nothing more than the proof of our own bodies.  We know the meaning of chaos because we once stuck a fork into an electric socket. We know that human extinction is inevitable because we did it again.  We know that people who say, “I love you” really mean, “I need you to love me.”  Just as we know that people who say, “There’s more to life than food” are…wrong.

We call this kind of knowledge “empirical,” from the Ancient Greek, ἐμπειρία, or empeiria, which translates as both “experience” and “experiment.”  I love that synergy: we experiment with reality through the sensory act of perception.  Knowledge is not so much drawn from experience as it is negotiated through the media of our senses.  Which isn’t to say that our perceptions, or the knowledge that results from them, are accurate.  Our senses, like those of other species, evolved to meet our own specific set of needs.  Which is to say, they are part and parcel of what makes us human.

We hear a great deal these days about the need for greater empathy.  We see our institutions—indeed, our very existence—threatened by our individual and collective inability to see the world through others’ eyes.  Some wonder if such a thing is even possible.  Some argue that it is enough simply to acknowledge and honor others’ perceptions, regardless of whether we can understand or identify with them, because all humans are entitled to that much.  Given how self-centered human beings are, that seems a lot to wish for.  Still, I have hope.  I believe we will endure, despite our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over, and despite our persistent inability to recognize the things that most matter until we lose them.  Those are emotional and intellectual failures that we may learn to overcome, or not.

But the body knows.  It signals dread to the heart and hamstrings long before the object of fear appears, and its skin prickles with desire long before the mind fixes on an object.  It says “run” and “seek,” even when mounded up on the couch, watching a seventh straight episode of Project Runway, season 12.  Despite the twin pillars of fear and laziness that shape so many of our decisions, it drags us along, demanding interface.  Regardless of our impulse to curse those who do not conform with our ideal of behavior, it forces our eyes to meet the glance of strangers, if only for a moment, seeking some sort of meaningful connection.  Irrespective of our persistent vision of a future cocooned in comfort and surrounded by lovers, family, friends, and well-wishers, our bodies demand adventures of the senses, whether at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a bag of Doritos (and if you call that comfort eating, ask yourself why you don’t stop until you feel sick).

The body’s way of knowing—which is to say, through the friction and vibrations of the senses—pushes us to speak when it would be better to keep our mouths shut, to engage when it would be easier to retreat, and to direct our attention, and by turns our feelings, toward those who suffer and want, even as our brains try to convince us that whatever action we might take would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.   Our bodies know, perhaps because they are more immediately part of the grand scheme of things than our measly brains.  If experience is experiment, they are the lab and its apparatus.  The results they present are the facts.  All our brains can do is posit theories about them.

Which is not to say our bodies know better.  They have a limited view, and lack imagination.  They feel, and translate that feeling into knowledge, relying on our brains to draw out kernels of wisdom and insight.  But where brains drift and doubt, unsure whether to apply the curious fork to wall socket or feast, bodies are persistent, and insistent.  They insist on identifying and prioritizing our needs.  Indeed, they help us to survive, when our brains are occupied elsewhere, by warning us against the chaos of the electric current, and driving us toward the communal table.

So doing, our bodies help us to learn to live with each other, to recognize how our needs and the needs of the collective are one.  As our minds prompt us to run from the danger we perceive in others, our bodies remind us that safety and comfort can only be found in others.

All to say, I suspect empathy isn’t about transcending the self, but embodying it. And that what saves us in the end may not be our ability to love others, but our need to be loved.


An Open Letter on the Politics of Allyship

Dear Future Ally-Worker (or Student, if you prefer):

First, thank you so much for attending the Diversity Lecture Series event with Jose Antonio Vargas last week. I greatly appreciate your attentiveness and your kind words after the program. Hearing that our students feel seen and heard by events like these makes the months of planning worthwhile.

If you wonder why I am writing to you tonight, it’s because something you asked me—though kindly and sincerely—has not stopped ringing in my consciousness since we interacted.

As you expressed your excitement, you asked the following: “You were so great last year on stage, why didn’t you take the mic again to interview Mr. Vargas. Aren’t you like the person in charge of this?”

Unfortunately, due to my role as an organizer and the hustle of that last 30 minutes, I did not respond to you in the way you deserve. In addition to the coffee I hope to buy you and the dialogue that I hope we will have over said coffee, here I am nonetheless– writing to you and to whomever stumbles upon this blog—to answer your initial question and to share some of the thoughts that shape my thinking.

Your question isn’t the only thing on my mind as I write this, though.

As you were bidding me farewell in person last week, you closed with the expression that you want to “be an ally – but not in the bullshitty way.”

Though your description and the matter-of-fact delivery made me chuckle, I share your commitment (and underlying fears). I have spent countless years devising approaches to that work. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share some guiding principles that feel right to me as I work to support marginalized folks without the regular accompanying bullshit.

When you complimented my on-stage work last year with Janet Mock at the 2017 Diversity Lecture Series event and asked why I wasn’t on-stage this year with Jose Antonio Vargas, you ignited my thinking yet again about how to approach work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in a body that most read as white, cisgender, (sometimes) heterosexual, able-bodied, and at least comfortably middle-class—all of this is regardless of how I self-identity.

As the event neared, honestly, it might have been easier and maybe even more glamorous in terms of professional accomplishments to take the stage again. Less planning, to be sure. And I admire Jose Vargas a lot. But re-centering my body because of my institutional capacity as Chair of the Committee on Diversity when I have colleagues more qualified is just a small example of how I think ally work can go awry. To let you in on my thinking a little bit, here are some of the ideas that I think through when I try to do the best work I can—while always holding myself accountable to do better.

Please know the list I share with you tonight is always growing, evolving, and developing in collaboration with some of the most intellectually sound, piercing, and loving ally-workers and community organizers I know.

I hope it helps you fight back the bullshit that far too often muddies our best intentions to labor with and/or for others. More than that, though, I hope it motivates you to think through and devise your own.


  1. EMBRACE THE WORK: As Janet Mock often reminds me, allyship is far more effective when we think about it as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of taking refuge in an identity, strive to think of it as working with and for the well-being of others. This is work that is always collaborative and work that you must always re-assess under the guidance of the folks you aim to help. Work, werk, or werq—but always do it.


  1. LISTEN: As my grandmother (and Pulitzer-prize playwright Eugene O’Neill) taught me, plenty of folks know how to hear but very few actually take the time to listen. If you want to engage others who move through the world differently than you do and make a difference in their lives, listen to them on their own terms and without interruption. Avoid demanding more information from them (if they haven’t welcomed you to do so) and never busy yourself preparing your reply (or, more likely, your defense) when they are sharing experience and knowledge with you.


  1. EDUCATE YOURSELF: Keep in mind that it is not the job of marginalized folk to educate you and others (and institutions) on how to avoid abusing them. Though this invisible (and often traumatic) labor is regularly thrown on them, ally-workers should take it upon themselves to self-educate and then to share resources with others in their communities on similar preparation journeys. Things that are “new to you” are often quite old or tiring for them, so use your resources (Google is often a great—though incomplete—start). Identify books, blogs, films, and more to guide you on your path to knowledge. Follow competent folks on social media, for they will inevitably lead you to more and more capable and urgent voices. In short, get thyself a bibliography.


If folks volunteer their already-marginalized labor or welcome you to ask them questions, great. Still try to check your curiosity and make sure that your questions are value-added for people other than yourself.


  1. AVOID RE-CENTERING YOURSELF AND EXPERIENCES: I cannot tell you how many community organizing meetings that I’ve been to in which the “new ally” holds the meeting hostage with their needs and experiences. They arrive unprepared but yet still manage to have lots to say (usually about how much they don’t know). Be mindful of the communities and the purposes at stake and avoid the temptation to re-center yourself and your viewpoints, especially if you are in a privileged body that has always trained you to occupy the center of the world and rewarded you seductively for a job well done. This is part of what I worked to avoid when I chose not to take the stage last week. I have an esteemed colleague who is more qualified for this particular event, is a student-favorite, and is vital to our institution. Why (other than arbitrary power play) would I re-center my body in that discussion? Instead, do the labor quietly behind the scenes, partner with folks when necessary, and then get out of the way.


  1. BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR BODY OCCUPIES SPACE: Recognize that whether we like it or not, our bodies carry all sorts of complicated narratives into a room or into a situation when we arrive. Being aware of how your body occupies space and questioning why that might be so are both crucial first steps to thinking through your own situatedness. While you might not ever be able to erase those narratives, you can contend with them, call attention to them (sometimes only in your own head or in conversation with other privileged folk), and work to navigate them to minimize adverse impacts.


  1. PRACTICE UNBECOMING: Devon Carbado has this useful expression that he cites as he talks about engaging feminist labor as someone who identifies as a cisgender man. Because the world has constantly acculturated him to “become” and remain a member of the patriarchy, and because the world will continue to do so (rewarding him for succeeding and punishing him for failing), he says the best he can do is always work at “unbecoming” the dude the world wants him to be, which—of course—necessitates that he do all sorts of violence to women to accomplish the goal. What Carbado’s idea of “unbecoming” reminds me of is the need to navigate a constant tension between resisting what is expected and foregrounding what one values. For instance, because I have been acculturated in and through a racial contact that prizes white supremacy and regularly denigrates blackness, I know that I will never just wake up one day and no longer be impacted by the seductive qualities of white supremacy that elevates me arbitrarily –and calls to me to be its glove puppet—its mouthpiece—even when I am not conscious of its power. Unbecoming is the never-ending work that I must reckon with daily if I am to labor diligently towards a more just and equitable life for as many as possible.


  1. REFUSE SILENCE: Part of the ally work, at least as I see it, is using my voice and the protection or power that I don’t necessary deserve to speak about inequities of power. Please note that speaking up about violence and speaking for others is not the same thing. In my efforts to speak truth to power about issues that disproportionally impact marginalized folk, I never speak on their behalf, or ask them to speak with me as I am talking, or use them and what I think are their experiences as my examples. Oftentimes, this can create a kind of epistemological violence that only does more hurt, but ironically, this hurt is done in the name of allyship. Speak for yourself only and remain focused on issues. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence won’t save us, so I encourage you to find ways to use your voice—whether that is in person, in writing, or through other actions that make your dissenting views clear.


  1. EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Though the term “get your people” has always made me uncomfortable, I do powerfully believe in the idea that ally-workers should help other aspiring ally-workers do better. And, honestly, this work extends beyond dialoguing with folks who openly want to better themselves and their work with others. It also involves using your privilege (always check that, by the way) to talk to those who disagree with you and the marginalized folk whom you aim to help. As bell hooks urges, call them in rather than call them out, and work to share your views with them. As you know well, these conversations are often riddled with complexities and sometimes violence, but imagine being the person living the experience and having to endure these conversations. Doing this particular kind of labor is often where you can be the most helpful. You, too, might have your limits, so as you prepare for protracted, meaningful transformation, pace yourself, reflect, re-strategize, and always recognize the power you have and the urgency of the issue.


I hope it goes without saying that this list is wildly incomplete and shared with you somewhat casually, but if it gives you a tiny glimpse into how I approached my decision last week and how I approach a lot of my work in my research, teaching, and service about marginalized communities, I am thankful.

Oh, and please don’t forget that last week I actually was able to choose to de-center myself. Any number of marginalized folk are often not in the position to choose at all.

Looking forward to coffee and more…



Words I Loathe (part 1) - Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being - either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.