Prior to Christmas this year, I accompanied my sister and brother-in-law who already had the you-know-what, and my infant niece who already has you-know-what antibodies, to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins who already had the you-know-what, and then my grandparents and other aunts who already had the you-know-what. We came home on Christmas Eve and I spent actual Christmas at home alone and didn't get the package my mom sent that was supposed to arrive on the 16th until today (I assume it arrived yesterday, but I didn't get it until today when I went outside and nearly tripped over it, so I'm glad it didn't get stolen overnight), but that's okay. The highlight of my brief travel was playing Legos with my ten and six year old cousins. Ten year old said at one point, "Who wants to get drugged?" I thought I must have heard her wrong, but no, she showed me the Lego "drug shop" she built where Lego people could "drink drugs" that made them grow extra torsos. Afterward, they "smoked" out of Lego saxophones. I just - what?
Also, two year old cousin found my scriptures and highlighted them for me, so that was thoughtful.
In the spirit of Christmas, I want to think about the good things that have happened this year, gifts from God, if you will. For most people, this year started to go downhill in March or thereabouts, but for me, January 14 was the literal worst day of my life, so everything after that was just kind of whatever. The best things that happened to me specifically were that I got accepted into graduate school and offered a graduate instructor position that I accepted and enjoyed, and my sister had a baby. Those don't go on the official list because they don't mean anything to most people and my purpose here isn't to brag about how great my life is, but I wanted to mention them.
1. We got Covid-19 vaccines in record time. I attribute this in part to the global fasts called for earlier this year by President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially the second one. In the April 2020 General Conference, he said, "I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized." The only immediate discernible result of this fast was an outpouring of love and fellowship among people of different faiths all over the world, which was really great but not the purpose of the fast. Within a few months, though, multiple companies have used new technology to create multiple vaccines faster than any other vaccine in history has been created. Skeptics will say it's a coincidence; I say it's not. I guess that's why they call it "faith".
2. The extent of racism still in the United States is finally being recognized and addressed by white Americans. Of course, many white people are fighting this recognition tooth and nail, insistent on deluding themselves that racism ended after some laws were passed in the 1960s, or that whatever racism still exists will go away by itself if we refuse to acknowledge it, but they've already lost. The protests and riots going on are generally regarded as another reason why 2020 has been a dumpster fire, but they're actually a good thing in the long run. They're the inevitable and long overdue symptom of a disease that's been festering for centuries, they're a step closer to healing, and they're what this country deserves. I don't condone or support riots, but as Martin Luther King (who didn't condone or support them either) pointed out, "in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard." This unrest could have been prevented if people in power had addressed these problems a long time ago, but now they have no choice.
This seems to be a direct silver lining of the you-know-what. If people hadn't been stuck at home spending all day on social media, the necessary outrage probably wouldn't have materialized, just like it never did in the past.
3. Police officers are finally being put in their place. While I recognize the huge racial disparity in police abuse, I count it as a separate issue from racism because racism manifests in many other ways and black people aren't the only ones subjected to police abuse. Occasionally I see arguments about whether Derek Chauvin is actually racist or not. As far as I'm concerned, even if you could conclusively prove that his murder of George Floyd over $20 (while he himself owed 1092.65 times that amount in taxes) had nothing to do with skin color, it would do little to alter the fact that he's a fascist pig who should be strung up by his genitals and used as a piñata. I hope there's a special place in hell for everyone who's tried to rationalize his actions, blame his victim, or otherwise make him look like less of a fascist pig than he actually is.
I say "abuse" to cover all forms of police corruption and misbehavior, not just physical brutality. I'm very conscious of that distinction after I myself was subjected to police abuse earlier this year on January 14, and after I recovered sufficiently from the trauma to form coherent thoughts I lost all respect for law enforcement and determined that the next time some hemorrhoid in a police uniform comes into my apartment, I'm not going to be Mr. Polite and Deferential while he yells at me. But it could have been much worse for me. All Officer Nelson of the Logan Police Department did was verbally and psychologically abuse me for ten minutes even though he had already been told I was suicidal and already knew he was supposed to make me go to the hospital for being suicidal. He didn't kill me, he just tried to drive me to do it myself. He never explained what I had done wrong and he never accused me of or charged me with any crime. But I thought the police would leave me alone if I didn't break the law? Huh.
Before this experience I wasn't motivated to try to do anything about police abuse, even though I knew it existed and disproportionately affected black people, and after this experience I was too frightened to try to do anything about police abuse because police were above the law, which of course is why Officer Nelson dared to treat me the way he did in the first place. I regret that I didn't get involved with the cause until everyone else did, but I'm determined to keep it going even if everyone else forgets. There is still much to be done until police officers are consistently and immediately held accountable for wrongdoing instead of having their fellow officers, departments, and unions ignore it or actively cover it up. If they abuse a civilian at any time, even if the civilian did something wrong once, they should be fired and, if necessary, arrested, full stop. Not reassigned to administrative duties, not put on paid leave a.k.a. vacation, not given a letter telling them not to do it again even though they've already done it seventeen times. Until that happens, people will continue to hate the police for damn good reason.
Bullies like Officer Nelson aren't the whole extent of the problem, either. While he tried to play bad cop good cop by himself, he was accompanied by another officer who seemed nice enough but said literally three sentences the whole time and did nothing to justify his presence there. He didn't stand up for me and he didn't ask his fellow cop to stop being a dickhole. It reminds me of this incident that happened in May but was just recently exposed, where a police sergeant in Boston bragged to another cop about running over BLM protesters in an unmarked police car, and didn't realize the other cop's body camera was on. Did the other cop report him? No, don't be ridiculous. The other cop warned him that his body camera was on, which tells you everything you need to know about law enforcement in this country, and the sergeant pretended he already knew that but immediately walked back his comments. Now that the footage has been made public, this piece of excrement has been placed on leave pending investigation, even though his comments alone are more than damning enough that he should be fired on the spot, and the only question is whether he should also be arrested for actually running protesters over.
Oh, and every time I see that picture of former police officer Brett Hankison with that insufferable smile on his face, I want to wipe it off with a brick.
Again, a silver lining of the you-know-what, for the same reasons. It's not like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were even close to being the first black people murdered by American police officers.
4. Donald Trump was not re-elected president of the United States. I know many disagree with me on this, though those people probably don't read my blog very much, but I strongly believe that for obvious reasons he will be remembered as at least the second-worst president in American history (it's kind of hard to top Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson). Again, not saying Biden is anything great, but at least he'll make the United States a bit less of a global embarrassment for the next four years, or however long he's in office before Harris assassinates him. At least he only sniffs women's hair instead of bragging about grabbing them by the pussy. At least he didn't unironically warn his followers that his political opponent "will listen to the scientists". At least come January, refugees in desperate need will no longer be banned from this country that once claimed to be a haven for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
I think this is a silver lining of the you-know-what too. As much as I hate to say it, Trump still has enough support that he very well might have been re-elected if not for his criminally negligent mishandling of and misinformation regarding what he called a "hoax", which put God knows how many preventable American deaths on his hands.
5. Disney announced a bunch of new Star Wars TV shows. Given that the most mediocre episode of "The Mandalorian" easily kicks the pants off any Disney Star Wars movie except for "Rogue One", and given that I've long been turning to fan films to get my fix because there isn't enough official audiovisual Star Wars content, I'm thrilled. Of particular interest to me is the show that will star Ahsoka Tano. In a galaxy with thousands of sapient races, it's pretty annoying that almost everything of importance seems to be done by humans, and it's about frigging time someone else got to be the lead in a movie or show. Ahsoka is an awesome character and more than deserving of the honor. I admit that when I first saw her in the animated "The Clone Wars" movie I thought she was a stupid character, but I've repented of that. I actually prefer her more flawed and relatable teenage version but her stoic warrior adult version is cool too. She was one of the most-requested candidates for one of the anthology spinoff films that got canceled after "Solo" flopped, and hopefully her success in leading this series will disprove once and for all the fear of studio executives that "aliens alienate people".
Speaking of "Solo", there's another announced series about Lando Calrissian, which could be interesting as long as it avoids everything that was wrong with "Solo". As you may be aware, when that movie came out in 2018, this character established thirty-eight years earlier was retconned to be pansexual. In the movie, he acts flirty toward Han, and his robot sidekick makes a couple of innuendos and claims he's in love with her, but this is played as a joke until she dies and he's all distraught and it's just weird. Disney exercised restraint with his sexuality, though, just like they did with the brief lesbian kiss between two nobody characters in "The Rise of Skywalker" that could easily be edited out of screenings in more conservative countries. Yet the door is open. The actor who played him, Donald Glover, said in an interview, "How can you not be pansexual in space? There's so many things to have sex with. I'm serious. It just didn't seem that weird to me. You're in space; the door's open." Yes, Donald, you nailed it, no pun intended. That is what Star Wars is all about. So right now, the title of his series is just "Lando", but that's boring and I have a much better proposal: "Star Whores". Jussayin.
The last day of USU classes was Thursday, December 10, and though I had two final projects and my own students' grading to finish, for most intents and purposes I was already on vacation. My therapist a couple years ago said that his experience successfully procrastinating as an undergraduate made him less stressed in graduate school. That was one of the most comforting things I ever heard, and I really took it to heart. I've gotten a perfect score on every assignment in every class this semester and still had a lot more free time than I expected. Now I have no classes and no job for over a month; school starts again on January 19 because spring break is canceled to prevent students from traveling and bringing Sharona Cyrus back with them, is what I heard. Next summer, I will probably go back to my old job at Jenson Online for a while to get some extra money, but there's no point trying to do that right now, especially since December is their slowest time of year when they give employees free time off.
I was supposed to attend two sexual misconduct prevention trainings this semester - one for graduate students and one for university employees. I'm not sure why graduate students need to have their own training separate from normal students, but they do. The employee training never happened because it's being rewritten to conform with updated government regulations, but the graduate student training was... interesting. I signed up for a date and time and then showed up to a Zoom meeting with several other graduate students, and it basically went as follows.
Host: This is kind of an awkward topic.
Everyone else: Yes, well, that can't be helped, can it? We'll just have to deal with -
Host: So let's make it less awkward. Let's make it fun.
Everyone else: Uh, what?
Host: I'm gonna put you in breakout groups and have you answer icebreaker questions.
Everyone else: Icebreaker questions?? Um, thanks, but that's really not -
Host: I'm going to put you back in these groups over and over.
Everyone else: You really don't have to -
Host: Build some lifelong friendships!
Everyone else: Please don't do this
Host: Have fun!
Everyone else: We won't
By the fifth or sixth time I returned to my breakout group, none of us were speaking at all. The main group discussion was fine, though notably absent was any mention whatsoever of rights or due process for those accused of sexual misconduct. I'm sure that was just an oversight - this isn't Purdue, after all.
Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a rule against graduate instructors asking out their students. I assume that if there were such a rule, it would have been announced very emphatically both during this training and the initial orientation. It makes no difference to me either way since none of my students are old enough or good enough at writing for me to be attracted to them, but I'm just surprised. My colleage Greyson got asked out by one of her students in a weekly reflection post, and she turned him down because it was "unprofessional". In the next week's reflection post he said that he hated her class and everything about it. Then he tried to make her jealous by talking about "this dope girl" he was going out with. Then he stopped coming to class. Then at the end of the semester he said he's dropping out of college and it's all her fault. I'm never going to stop teasing her about it. On a more positive note, one of my students asked out one of his classmates in a discussion post, and I was super impressed with his chutzpah and I hope they get married because that would be the cutest thing ever.
I also was supposed to have to take an alcohol training before I would be allowed to register for classes next semester, and that never materialized either. It would have been a waste of time anyway. I've never consumed a drop of alcohol in my life, and if I ever do, I know I'll immediately drink myself to death and there will be no other problems to consider.
Teaching was... good. I don't know what else to say. It wasn't phenomenal, it wasn't terrible, it wasn't super easy, it wasn't super difficult. I do seem to have natural teaching skills that somewhat compensate for my lack of knowledge or experience. I don't know how I could have acquired any such skills but I don't know how else to account for the semester going so smoothly under the circumstances. I love most of my students - I definitely have favorites, and one least favorite. My favorites are the best writers, of course, but also some others who aren't so good at writing but are just really good hard-working kids. I still don't know what most of them look like. I may have gotten an exceptional batch - my colleagues complained that all of their students wrote about Covid for the "Investigating the Conversation" current event essay, but my students, in addition to a few essays about Covid's effects on this or that, wrote about such diverse topics as Utah's drought, California's wildfires, Chicago's violence, Mexico's water treaty with the US, Chile's new constitution, Bolivia's election, Poland's abortion ban, and China's Uyghur genocide.
I tried to get them to talk and make friends with each other in class. For the most part they were awkward and quiet, but sometimes when they finished their work in breakout groups they asked each other about their lives and majors and stuff, and sometimes when I dropped in they asked me questions about my life and undergraduate experience and that was probably the most enjoyable thing for me so far. They didn't have many opportunities to socialize this semester and I wanted to help them out as much as I could. Most of them are freshmen getting cheated out of their freshman experience. When I was a freshman, events were held on campus and/or in my dorm almost every evening. Live, in-person events. I feel so sorry for these kids. I tried, also, to teach them skills and principles that will help them in everything they do for the rest of their lives. I thought back to a philosophy class I took my first semester, and how it taught me to think, and I wanted to replicate that effect in my own class. I never forced my opinions on anyone but I taught them how to evaluate sources and information and different perspectives, and that will help them be less stupid and dogmatic than most Americans.
I tried, also, to draw on my own experience to urge them to avoid my mistakes and consequent suffering, but here I was less successful. One of my students with a learning disability flunked the class after not showing up or turning anything in for two months, despite being informed by me about the Disability Resource Center four times. I ask myself, what could I have said or done differently to have more of an influence on this student? If nothing, then what's the point of me being here? If I wanted to watch young people ignore my warnings and make avoidable mistakes and suffer, I would become a parent.
FairMormon, formerly known as FAIR (Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research) "is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Over ten years ago, it saved me from my first faith crisis by providing additional context and analysis to show that the issues I feared were smoking guns against the Church actually weren't. As the years went on I became less enamored with it and less dependent on it, and recognized that at times its apologetic arguments left something to be desired, and occasionally I sent a question to its volunteers and got no response or got a response to a different question than the one I asked, but I continued to root for it and support its mission. As of this week it has entirely lost my respect.
Recently, FairMormon started releasing video rebuttals to the CES Letter, a CliffsNotes compilation of recycled criticisms against the Church that's gotten a lot more attention than it deserves and been elevated to scriptural status by many former members. Several people have produced rebuttals over the last seven years, but these videos are meant to be a fresh, different approach to reach the younger generation. They're hosted by some guy I've never heard of and Kwaku El, an up-and-coming apologist who used to be one of my favorite people until he decided to flaunt public health and safety guidelines by throwing massive dance parties that were probably a major factor in Utah's ongoing explosion of you-know-what cases. I hope the money he made was worth the blood he has on his hands. But never mind that now. The series, a spoof of comedic spoofs of late night news programs, is called "This is the Show". TITS - get it? It's funny if you're seven, and the same can be said for most of the show's jokes.
I am, obviously, a snarky and sarcastic person myself, and while I need to be better at not crossing the line, I have no intention of changing that aspect of my personality altogether. I believe there's a time and a place for it. Jesus didn't just go around being nice to people all the time. He called people hypocrites, dogs, swine, generation of vipers, whited sepulchres, and Satan. Also, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" sounds pretty sarcastic to me. (There is some scholarly debate about whether that story actually belongs in the Bible, but virtually all Christians accept it so that's what matters right now.) And I think the CES Letter is garbage and I don't believe Jesus would treat it with respect it doesn't deserve. I don't think much of author Jeremy Runnells as a person either, because I don't think his actions since his initial faith crisis have shown honesty or integrity, but I defended him once when a Latter-day Saint apologist called him a "miserable Aspie" (and I was in an ideal situation to put the bigot in his place, as an Aspie myself, before I stopped using that word because Hans Asperger was a Nazi collaborator who sent children to their deaths).
Also, I roll my eyes so hard at the hypocrisy of church critics who throw insults and contempt around to their hearts' content and then cry foul if a believer dares to respond without being entirely polite and deferential. I roll my eyes so hard when atheists who by definition don't believe in Christ - at most, they believe Jesus was just a guy who went around being nice to everyone and lying about being the Son of God - whine about someone not being "Christlike". Every digital ex-Mormon community I've ever wasted my time in was a cesspool of hate, mockery, and cultish buzzwords like "Morgbot" (Mormon + Borg + robot) and acronyms like "TSCC" (That So-Called Church), so while I recognize that not every individual is like this, I roll my eyes so hard when these cesspools send their members out in droves to complain about believers failing to foster an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect that they suddenly pretend to value. I don't particularly care that they're upset. They deserve to be upset.
So what I'm getting at is that I wanted to like these videos, really. And most of their information is accurate and they have some funny moments. But they cross the line far too often. They insult Jeremy Runnells and others like John Dehlin personally instead of restricting themselves to the letter's contents, some of their "jokes" are just straight-up tasteless, and they lack any nuance or empathy whatsoever. (Who would've thought that Kwaku "If people are going to die, they’re going to die" El would lack empathy? Yes, he actually said that about his dance parties.) I agree that the CES Letter is garbage, but these videos (and in fairness, this is a common attitude among apologists) are totally dismissive of any legitimate doubts or concerns a person might have. Take polygamy, for example. In the video "Mo Wives, Mo Problems" they spend a whopping ten minutes on this complicated and multifaceted practice that lasted at least sixty years, make a few jokes about sex, and basically say that there's no issue here and you're wrong and stupid if it bothers you at all. By the way, Zelph on the Shelf's 46-minute response video to that video has almost twice as many views. Oops.
I can't recommend, support, or like "This is the Show". Maybe I have no right to criticize when I've written worse things (though to the best of my recollection I've never belittled anyone for having doubts or concerns), but I represent only myself and have a very small audience, so my potential for damage is very small. I believe these videos, coming as they do from the foremost Latter-day Saint apologetics organization, will do far more harm than good to the Church. If this had been the calibre of material that FAIR had to offer when I found it ten years ago, I wouldn't likely still be a member of the Church today. Also, calling the CES Letter "toilet paper", as one episode does two or three times, doesn't offend me in the slightest but doesn't really make sense either. While I'm sure a few people have printed it out so they can sleep with it every night, the letter is first and foremost a pdf. So how would that even work? Never mind, I don't want to know.
The response was overwhelmingly negative from both in and out of the Church. I admit, because I believe snark and sarcasm have a place and because I roll my eyes so hard at critics' hypocrisy, my first impulse was to defend the videos, but I couldn't keep that up for long. The like-to-dislike ratio on each one, and the majority of comments, were not favorable. And it turns out that someone at FairMormon has been reading The Ventana Student Housing Guide to Damage Control. Within a few days, the likes and dislikes were made invisible to the public, and comments were disabled. As if that weren't enough, anyone who expressed the slightest critique of the videos' tone on FairMormon's Facebook page was banned without a word. I was banned on Tuesday night. Despite my being a faithful member of the Church my entire life, despite my decade of support for apologetics, in FairMormon's militant us vs. them mentality I am now an enemy. More like FearMormon, amiright? At this point I have to ask, is its board of directors now composed of fifth graders? I find this response more damning than the videos themselves.
FairMormon also released a damage control statement on its blog recently (with - wait for it - comments disabled), and instead of taking the opportunity to acknowledge that this was a misfire, chose to double down: "These videos use comedy and caricature to address criticisms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are intended for a youth and young adult audience as part of our efforts to provide accurate, well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice and history of the Church."
Okay, great, but there's clearly a mismatch between the intention of these videos and how they're actually received by most people. Maybe FairMormon should look inward instead of assuming that everyone who dislikes them is wrong because the intention was good.
The statement goes on to say: "First, some have claimed that other groups collaborated with FairMormon on these videos. This is false. FairMormon commissioned the production of 'This is The Show' videos without prompting, input, suggestion or direction from any other entity or individual. No other group has contributed to the content, style, performance, production, or distribution of our videos. FairMormon alone is responsible for the content shared on the videos, and our websites."
Wow. Just wow. I just kind of assumed these videos were Kwaku's idea - he mentioned on his own channel some time ago that they were in the works, after all - and then FairMormon had the poor judgment of agreeing to partner with him and host them, and that was a bit more understandable. The revelation that FairMormon alone is responsible for the content, style, performance, and production does not, in fact, make the organization look better.
The statement goes on to say, "Second, some have accused FairMormon of distributing a meme with intent to incite violence. This is also false. We did not create or distribute the meme in question, nor did we ask anyone (directly or indirectly) to create or distribute such a meme. We do not know the individual who created the meme. We have nothing whatever to do with the meme, and we do not condone it in any way. FairMormon abhors violence in all of its forms and condemns anything that would invite or incite violence towards anyone—including our critics. We regret that any personalities associated with FairMormon may have shared such content. We will review our social media policy with our FairMormon associates and contractors."
This refers to a memeified clip from "Inglorious Basterds" made by a DezNat cultist and shared approvingly on Twitter by Kwaku and the videos' director, which depicts "This is the Show" straight-up murdering Jeremy Runnells and John Dehlin. Runnells and Dehlin, apparently not understanding how memes or symbolism work, made themselves look really stupid by treating this as a credible threat of violence and trying to get Kwaku arrested for endorsing it. (Not to mention that calling the police on a black man is itself essentially a murder attempt.) But the video is unquestionably tasteless, and FairMormon not being directly responsible for it doesn't entirely absolve the organization. The people who shared this meme are not just "any personalities associated with FairMormon", they are the people being actively promoted by FairMormon as its public face for the rising generation. And if nobody at FairMormon can see an obvious correlation between the kind of memes they share and the tone of the videos they produce under FairMormon's auspices, then my rhetorical question about its board of directors being composed of fifth graders was too generous.
Of course, I may be spectacularly missing the point because I'm not in these videos' target demographic. They're aiming for Gen Z. The most annoying thing about Gen Z is that boomers can't tell the difference between them and millennials. I'm one of the youngest millennials, and I'm twenty-seven. Anyway, FairMormon assumes that Gen Z doesn't have the attention span or patience for long scholarly works, and that comedy is the way to reach them instead. That may be a valid point, but FairMormon could have done that without crossing the line. Saints Unscripted, formerly known as 3 Mormons - which Kwaku is very familiar with because he used to be part of it - has been reaching Gen Z for years. It often tackles controversial issues while still being funny and engaging, but not tasteless and mean-spirited. Unlike "This is the Show", the comments it receives from church members and non-members alike are usually positive, and unlike "This is the Show", the comments it receives aren't disabled. So I call BS on this excuse.
I am assured by some, mostly forty-somethings and older, that "This is the Show" has already helped a lot of young people's testimonies, though I saw no evidence of that in the comments before they were disabled, and have still seen no evidence of that anywhere. I did see a 19-year-old on the exmormon subreddit complaining about the cognitive dissonance that these videos caused by refuting parts of the CES Letter, but they didn't exactly make him feel like coming back to church. He said that "Kwaku is nothing but a narcissistic douchey frat boy" and "The last thing I want is for Mormons my age to start bullying ex members with Kwaku talking points, and I can see it coming. This [redacted] guy got thousands of people to go to parties during COVID. Like, people here [in Utah County] listen to him, and the fact that he doesn’t care who he pisses off makes people here like him more." The Trump principle. Surely FairMormon can do better than the Trump principle, even though Utah County can't?
Even if "This is the Show" helps some people in the short term, I think they're only applying a band-aid to the problem. Any young person who's enamored with them now will be disillusioned when they grow up a little and realize that reading someone's argument in a derisive tone of voice isn't actually clever. At the same time, many - probably including some from Gen Z, but certainly from all over the generational spectrum because it's not like these videos can be age-restricted to their target demographic - are already actively repulsed by their tone.
You know, I just finished a semester of teaching Gen Z college students. Despite the arbitrary generation gap placed between us, I feel that our closeness in age helped them relate to me. Sometimes I put them in Zoom breakout groups and then went through to check on them and they stopped discussing the class material and asked me questions about my life and/or experience as an undergraduate, which was delightful. While recognizing that most of them were new to college and thus ignorant in many ways, I never talked down to them or insulted their intelligence. I strove to teach them critical thinking skills and standards of civil discourse that will serve them well in other classes, careers, and anything they choose to pursue in the future. I used the infamous Trump-Biden debate as an example of how not to do critical thinking and civil discourse. If these videos had been around and I weren't wary of broaching religious topics in the classroom, I could have just as easily used them instead. Gen Z deserves better than this. Gen Z can handle better than this. Claiming that this garbage is the only way to reach them is an unwarranted insult.
And like I said, Saints Unscripted has already been giving them better for years. I didn't plan for this to turn into a promotion for Saints Unscripted, but now it's a promotion for Saints Unscripted. Go subscribe to Saints Unscripted.
Now that less than a week remains in the semester, I will write about my remaining class that I haven't written much if anything about yet. Natalie's ENGL 6882, "Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop", is not only my easiest class but also substantially easier than Charles' ENGL 4420, "Advanced Fiction Writing", which I took twice as an undergraduate - and not just because my skills have improved.
Story requirements for Charles' class:
"2 Workshopped stories - each between 8 and 15 pages, due one week before your workshop. Note on page lengths: you must reach the minimum page count to earn full credit; if your story is over 15 pages, include the whole story, but alert your peers to the extra reading. Be sure that you've edited your story and that additional pages are 'worth it.' Use a simple font, double space, and number the pages! Stories will be graded using the criteria below. These grades cannot be revised for a better score. It is possible to get a 'C+' on a story and still get an 'A' for the final grade in the class, assuming you get 'A's on everything else. All work must be new writing, not something you wrote in high school or workshopped in a previous class....
"This is a writing workshop, so there is no expectation that your stories should already be perfect. However, that does not mean sloppy work, or work that doesn't address the very basic elements of fiction is acceptable. Your story should: 1) be completely free of grammar and spelling errors, 2) avoid cliche, inflated or awkward prose, and the overuse of 'to be' verbs, 3) employ figurative language, setting details, and description 4), [sic] have a clear situation, central tension, crisis, and organizational structure (even if a complex, nonlinear one), 5) develop a consistent and appropriate point of view, and 6) offer substantial character development."
Story requirements for Natalie's class:
"You will submit two pieces of short fiction between 2000-4000 words. Please use Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-space, one-inch margins. If you exceed the word limit by 500 words or so, that is fine.
"Please see below for the workshop schedule and your assigned due date.
"You are free to write in any genre that you wish, including but not limited to fantasy, science fiction, crime, or literary fiction.
"I support the artistic freedom of all students. I hope that you will explore the subject matter and style of writing that you're passionate about. If you have any concerns about your ideas, please reach out to me."
Of course, the more stringent requirements in Charles' class pushed me to be a better writer, which helped me impress him to the point that he urged me to consider graduate school and teaching and has offered to be my thesis advisor. It was thus more of a challenge to impress Natalie, but I think I managed.
In addition to writing our two major stories and doing one revision, we had to read and respond to some published stories throughout the semester. First we read Victor LaVelle's novella "The Ballad of Black Tom", which is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" without all the rabid xenophobia. We had a choice to respond either with a traditional discussion post or a short fiction piece inspired by it, and I chose the latter and wrote another mini-sequel, and I posted it on my site here even though it doesn't entirely make sense without reading the novella first. Natalie liked it.
Then we had to read stories from Carmen Maria Machado's debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, and the first one was called "The Husband Stitch" and when I looked it up to understand the weird symbolism that went over my head, I accidentally found out what a husband stitch allegedly is, and maybe I'm the only person in the world who didn't know that but if you don't know that, I recommend not looking it up. I did a normal boring discussion post for this one.
Unfortunately, Machado is one of those authors who likes to titillate herself by writing about sex and calling it art, which I consider very pretentious. In an optional supplemental interview I read, she said, "I’m really interested in writing about sex.... I also like treating sex as a thing that happens. I wanted the sex to be mostly uncommented upon, just a part of the story, a part of the characters’ lives, as sex is in real life. I have characters in this book who have sex with both men and women, and I wanted the queerness and the liquidity of the sex to be uncommented upon also. It’s not a big deal - it just is what it is. Sometimes people describe 'The Husband Stitch' as erotica, and I like erotica, but that’s not erotica. The story is not serving the sex, the sex is serving the story." I think that if you have to explain why your writing isn't erotica, it's probably erotica. But nobody asked me.
The next story, "Inventory", was even worse in that regard. It's literally a detailed recitation of all of the protagonist's sexual encounters that I never asked about. It does one clever thing, though - it weaves in a subplot about a virus (hahahahahahaha) which at first is just a news item playing on a television in the background, but by the end of the story has essentially caused the collapse of civilization and sent the protagonist to go live on an island by herself as she realizes that "the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will even go a little faster." All this sex made me squeamish, less for moral reasons than because sex is really gross, so I vented my frustration by mocking the story with another mini-sequel. It was full of inappropriate puns and unsuitable for publication on my website, but I had no choice. It took some courage because I thought Natalie might get really upset with me for slut-shaming. But she didn't.
"Lust for the Aliens" would be a cool band name. I'm torn between wanting to explain, and feeling like it's funnier with no additional context.
As we progressed through the book, the stories became less horny and more bearable. The next one I responded to was "Especially Heinous", subtitled "272 Views of Law & Order: SVU". Despite the title and the subject matter of police officers, it wasn't bad, but it was incomprehensible. Forty pages of fictional episode synopses about ghost girls with bells in their eyes, alien abductions, thump-thump noises under the city, evil doppelgangers who do Benson's and Stabler's jobs better than they do, and various other weird crap that's obviously satirizing something somehow. This time, at least, all of my classmates were as confused as I was. In my mini-sequel, a man's pretentiously artistic wife has just made him watch a "Law & Order: SVU Seasons 1-12 Greatest Clips Compilation" Blu-Ray that she found in the bin at Wal-Mart, and he rants about how it made no sense while she tries to explain in vague terms why it's true art without letting on that she didn't understand it either. The dynamic between them was partially inspired by an old "Doonesbury" storyline.
I suppose, too, I was making fun of art, but in an affectionate way, as a front for my jealousy at lacking the capacity to ever fully understand it. My writing will never be as dense with meaning as Machado's - though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Russ, a non-fiction writing professor, described my voice as "almost entirely stripped of metaphor" and "just unique enough that I'm nearly willing to read anything you're writing". So, you know, different strokes for different folks. This story was also well-received.
We stopped doing responses and just had in-class discussions, because Natalie is very nice, and then we finished the book and read some other stuff. Most recently, we didn't have any readings but were instructed to write a flash piece, so I just took some inspiration from one of the Zoom chat conversation my graduate instructor cohort had during our practicum while Beth was talking.
Who's to say that Satan might not have an occasional teensy-tiny good quality even if he is the most evil being in the universe? Even Hitler loved dogs, hated smoking, and got Brigitte Helm cleared of manslaughter charges.
So, what about my actual two major fiction pieces? I know you're dying to hear how those went. For my first one I wasn't sure which direction to go, so I sought input from my friends and other people who are connected to me on Facebook even though they're not my friends.
I mostly went with the first option, but the story needed something to justify its existence beyond the gimmick of switching traditional roles around. So I thought, wouldn't it be funny if the princess rescued the dragon by peacefully protesting? And that's how my story quickly evolved into the least subtle socio-political allegory ever written. I softened the sledgehammer of biting commentary with humor. I worried that it wasn't humorous enough, but the first comment about it in class was Mark saying, "You could almost point to a random spot on the page and find something funny." So that was nice. Of course, as is traditional, I received written peer feedback and then my classmates praised and critiqued it in class and then Natalie sent me her written comments.
This story is a powerful blend of humor and social commentary. At its core, it’s about a young woman’s struggle to free her friend, a dragon who’s been mercilessly captured by Sir Nelson. The narrative seems to reflect on protests against police brutality today, emphasizing the concerted effort of activists to avoid violence as they fight for justice for victims of police shootings. It is also a story about the role of privileged people in movements for social justice.
You have a talent for constructing humorous political commentary through a voice driven narrative. Penelope’s wit crackles from the beginning of the story as she eyes Nelson’s “pompous frilly outfit” and “the vein in his forehead” that “looks like it’s about to splatter me with something gross.” At the same time, I’m captivated by her expression of vulnerability throughout the narrative, particularly her insecurity around her privilege, evident in her questioning “Should I even be here?” Lines like this add depth and complexity to her sparkling character. It’s truly wonderful writing. Her act of violence also complicates her character, and we sense the desperation and panic with which she commits the act. It’s an intriguing climax to the story.
In terms of revision, I think you can consider introducing her relationship with Milo from the beginning. It’d be helpful to gain a better understanding of her love for him and the details around his capture. Was she there? What’s public knowledge, and what has she learned through other channels? I think you can also heighten the tension in the narrative by developing her conflict/relationship with the other protesters, perhaps one or two in particular. How do they feel about rallying behind the princess? She doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting to know the grievances of the others. Perhaps they could confront her about this—forcing her to reflect upon herself and her role in the movement.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t feel confident about developing the deeper meaning of a story. However, meaning develops organically when you attend to tension and character development. You’ve already introduced nuanced and interesting reflections on our current moment into this piece! The story will grower even richer if you spend a bit more time getting to know your characters.
Having done a fantasy, now I obviously had to do a sci-fi. The only kernel of an idea I had for weeks was that aliens would visit and then subvert expectations of alien visitations. I thought about satirizing the stupidity of American partisan politics, but decided I didn't want to do another sledgehammer message. I thought about having one alien be a student abductor, but there's already a Pixar short about that. And then I thought: wouldn't it be hilarious if they were missionaries? And that was all I had until most of the story came to me one night as I was laying in bed trying to sleep, almost like a revelation. The story had some political jabs but mostly focused on religion and God. Not in a malicious way, mind you. It mocks biblical literalism and vents some steam about the problem of evil and all the crap going on, but at its heart it's just meant to be weird and funny and yes, irreverent, but not anti-religious or anti-theist in any way. I think I succeeded. One religious classmate wrote, "This piece goes to all the places that I would be scared to go, and I love that! I think this is such a potent thing for the right audiences (though I also think you’ll offend a fair number) – and I love the satire that comes through."
The reception was once again positive, but part of our discussion in class (and I did ask for feedback on this) centered around whether the stereotype of a right-wing evangelical Southern farmer was too simple and perhaps too mean-spirited. For what it's worth, I had run the story by my colleague from Georgia (who isn't in this class) and she thought it was hilarious. Natalie was also a little concerned about one part where the protagonist says he sent the Mormons packing, and one of the aliens says, "I promise we're not as weird as them." She isn't from around here so I guess she wasn't aware of how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or at least the ones with backbones, like to laugh at themselves. And that part was directly inspired by a couple of jokes from "The Simpsons" anyway.
This is such a hilarious and whimsical portrayal of the creation story and contemporary society. The satire is entertaining because it brings an unexpected cast of characters together—namely, Jackson, a right-winger with a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, and two aliens who are here to offer him an opportunity to escape to a better planet. It’s hilarious to watch him witness the creation of the world through the compromise between Ziltoid and God. This is an effective plot, because it shows Jackson considering an entirely different point of view. It’s surprising and wonderful that he consents to watching this interaction unfold. Perhaps he’s more open-minded and curious than meets the eye.
Second, you offer such irreverent and humorous characterizations of God as a somewhat simple-minded being obsessed with dinosaurs. I laughed aloud at his ridiculous pantomime of a dinosaur feeding on another. In contrast, Ziltoid’s wise and imaginative, for instance when she states, “Art is about creativity! Not doing the same straggling[*] thing over and over again!” Their entire interaction is dynamic, and ultimately, illuminates God’s limitations as the creator of the world—his mean-spiritedness and penchant for revenge. Forced to compromise, he builds the world using sub-par standards and exhibits little compassion for humans. This depiction speaks to the chaos and hardship humanity endures today.
In terms of revision, I think you should consider developing your portrayal of Jackson. To make the story even more engaging, it would be helpful if you complicated his character. First of all, it’d be wonderful to witness his reactions to the vision in greater detail. What is so troubling about what he sees? There’s a ton of potential for humor here, and it could help readers connect with him even more. After all, fictional characters are most exciting when they offer a fresh and exciting vision of humanity.
Furthermore, I think you can heighten the humor by subverting our expectations with this character. It makes sense that a simple-minded guy like Jackson would pass up an opportunity to escape to a better place. But I think you should dive back into the final scene and rethink his interaction with the aliens. Slow down and investigate his reaction to what he’s seen. What if he doesn’t dismiss it outright? What if he asks questions? After all, it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t hop into their spaceship! Who would? I found myself relating to Jackson in this instance, and I think you can explore this further. Show him thinking through this option with the aliens. Finally, I think you should explore other possibilities for his decision. What if he joins them? That would be such a wild moment, full of wonder and humor. There’s so much potential here! Dive back in and explore it.
* The word was actually "stragging", a pseudo-swear that I made up for previous sci-fi works, but it confused some people and I should have made up a more distinctive one.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.