A disturbing tale of R. Crumb vs. fragile students, and the demonization of a professor

November 13, 2022 • 9:45 am

I usually think of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) as a “woke-ish” site, but there’s nothing pro-woke about artist Phoebe Goeckner’s description of how horribly she was treated when teaching “graphic art novels” and alternative comic-book art (e.g., R. Crumb) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Click to read:

There’s nothing, it seems, that you can teach about such “alternative” comics/graphic art that isn’t offensive, particularly when you remember this stuff began in the Sixties as a reaction to anodyne comics.  R. Crumb, who, yes, sexualized women and dealt with fraught topics, was nevertheless wildly popular, especially because he was heterodox. And of course his work didn’t result in a whole generation of hippies that hated women.

Nevertheless, Glockener was repeatedly criticized by students, who complained to the administration, and was investigated by two offices involve with diversity and equity. An art exhibit she was invited to give at a local institute was canceled because of this controversy, as was a TEDx talk she was invited to give.

The article is long, and I won’t describe it in detail, but I’ll show a few images that incited student protest and got Glockner in trouble. Her comments are indented:

But in 2020, we were all “sheltering in place” because of the pandemic, and I was teaching on Zoom. The students Googled Robert Crumb before I could say much to contextualize his work. They immediately raised their voices in protest. Quoting from what they read, they insisted that Crumb was a “racist” and a “misogynist.” One student cried out that he had been accused of rape. Several insisted that showing any of his work was “hurtful.” They said I was “harming” the class.

I was taken aback. Comics are fundamentally a provocative medium, and Crumb is a provocative artist, but I didn’t think I had shown an especially offensive image. Crumb and his work have been the target of both high praise and bitter criticism for years, but before that moment, most of the students knew nothing about him — and seemed unwilling to question what they had read about him on the internet. Moreover, Crumb is a central figure in the history of comics. He can’t be written out of the books.

That’s for sure!  And if you’ve read Crumb (I have a collection of his comics) or seen the highly acclaimed movie about him and his dysfunctional family (“Crumb“, 1985, described by Gene Siskel as “the best movie of the year”), you’ll know that a lot of Crumb’s art involved working out his own psychological hangups, which happened to be a lot of readers’ psychological hangups, too. But don’t forget his greatest creation, the faux-guru Mr. Natural:

Mr. Natural, clearly a satire on the “enlightenment” that we all were seeking in the Sixties:

Below is another cover that got Glockener in trouble when she showed it:

As I searched for particular comics covers, I forgot that I was sharing my screen. The students watched as multiple images flashed by, images I planned to share later in the semester. One of them was the cover of Young Lust #5 (1977), featuring a Red Guard couple in a suggestive embrace.

The Young Lust series satirized romance comics of the 1940s-60s. This particular cover is a teaser for Jay Kinney’s Red Guard Romance, a love story set in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution. The story, dedicated to Zhou Yang, an early supporter of Mao’s who was later imprisoned, is a humorous critique of the Communist government’s oppressive methods of controlling behavior. Kinney satirizes the representations of cheering Mao supporters omnipresent in Cultural Revolution propaganda.

When the Young Lust cover came into view, one student raised the alarm: “Why are you showing us even more racist images?” The cover, the student said, “sexualized Asian women.”

Yes, if you’re determined to be offended, you can see this satire as racist (after all, there are Chinese people there), and “sexualizing Asian women” (no, it satirized Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution). But I suspect the students didn’t know abut the Cultural Revolution, much less the red book the woman’s holding.

Gloeckner apologized, and her attempt to make amends by telling the students to watch the movie “Crumb” (95% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes), “failed miserably”.  The students formed an “R. Crumb Hate Corner”, which was really a Gloeckner hate corner, and then observed her daily and carefully, looking for further missteps. There were a few—but not serious ones nor ones that stemmed from racism or transphobia. But they were enough to inspire an article in The Michigan Daily demonizing her:

One of these students sent me screenshots from the Hate Corner throughout the semester. It soon became clear that the chat was not about Robert Crumb. It was about me. The “haters” were watching me carefully, waiting for me to slip up so they could add ammo to a document they were preparing, “Complaints Against Phoebe.” One day after class, two of my confidential informants shared their screen over Zoom and scrolled through the document, which described a plan to report me to the art-school administration. There was one statement that stood out to me, which I paraphrase here because I don’t have the document, something along the lines of: Let’s get this one right. We failed with the other professor — let’s do this one by the book. I inferred that they had attempted to bring charges against another teacher, without the desired outcome. Now they would try to get me, and make it stick.

This past May, a year and a half later, I received an email from an investigative reporter for The Michigan Daily, a student-run paper. She invited me to respond to a list of allegations against me, including: failure to use trigger warnings, exposing students to racist material, misgendering students, and demonstrating that I was a racist by confounding two names. Also included was an inflammatory accusation from someone outside the university who claimed I had kissed them on the forehead and whispered in their ear, “You are a dog.”

Where did such charges come from? Some were rooted in truth, however ungenerously construed. Early in the semester, after showing the Crumb image and before learning everyone’s name, I had apparently mixed up two students with Hispanic surnames. A screenshot from the R. Crumb Hate Corner claimed that this faux pas was inexcusable and proved that I was a racist. I’ve been working on a project in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for 15 years. This allegation was so far from the truth that I could barely make sense of it.

Another day, I inadvertently misgendered a trans student, whom I had known the previous semester when they used a different pronoun. I immediately apologized. Screenshots followed.

I felt under siege.

The usual administrative investigation followed, involving both the Office of Institutional Equity and The Office of Diversity Equality and Inclusion (why are these separate offices?). Fortunately, these investigations were eventually dropped.  But the damage was done. All the complaints were added to her personnel file, her teaching had been permanently affected, and some opportunities were canceled. These included an invitation to give a TEDxUofM talk that was later withdrawn.

Gloeckner’s latest work was a series of miniatures based on her years of work in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with photos like these:

The illustrated novel I’m working on now can’t be described as traditional “comics.” Based upon fact, experience, and research, it is about several families and a neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez, directly across the U.S. border.

I’ve drawn the images in my previous books with pen and ink. For my current project, I constructed miniature scenes and photographed them. Frustrated by my physical distance from the place and the people I’m writing about, I began building parts of Ciudad Juárez in my studio. I built replicas of houses I had visited, trying faithfully to reproduce interior and exterior details. The floor of my studio was covered in sand. I constructed dolls to populate the streets and buildings. The process of making all these things made me feel closer to the story. It was something of a spiritual ritual; I was recreating a particular place as it appeared at a particular time, and I no longer felt so distant. I could walk the streets of Anapra day or night, because they lived with me.

And for that she got this:

In 2018, the University of Michigan International Institute had invited me to exhibit a work in progress in its gallery. Several weeks before the exhibit was to open, I received an email from the International Institute describing some “strong concerns” about my project expressed by a group of professors in the Latina/o-studies program, who wished to remain anonymous to me. The program had been asked to co-sponsor the exhibit, a request which it declined.

The professors had been sent a brief description of the work along with two or three images. Based on this material, they voiced concern that “the miniaturization or infantilization of the Mexican body through the use of dolls could be trivializing and upsetting to some people”; they “worry that the scenes depicted might reinscribe negative racial stereotypes.”

Other remarks in the letter focused on the “demonization of Mexicans in national rhetoric” and the potential for “retraumatization” that the work, about a violent era in Juárez, might present. These concerns led this group of anonymous faculty members to conclude that the work should not be exhibited.

Although the identity of the writers was concealed from me, I responded to the director of the Latina/o-studies program, extending an invitation to those interested to visit my studio for a discussion of the project. I never got a response.

Miniaturization or infantilization of the Mexican body my tuchas!  Did they want full-sized sculptures?

Demonization of graphic novels isn’t limited to the Left, either:

Meanwhile, off campus, right-wingers are trying to get books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Jerry Craft’s New Kid removed from school libraries. Although I wouldn’t say that I have faced a concerted effort to curtail free speech, I have heard one message unambiguously: Education is a safer occupation for those willing to limit their speech by excluding certain material. That would make it impossible to teach the history of comics.

Again, I’m surprised that a long plaint like this was published in the CHE, but it’s good that they did. Not that this will stop the Pecksniffs, but one lesson we learned, as we learned from the cancellation of Carole Hooven at Harvard, is that this stuff could be stopped in its tracks if college administrations had any spine, standing up for academic freedom. There is simply nothing wrong in what Gloeckner taught; the problem was the generation of fragile and easily offended students who cannot deal with anything challenging, and with the invertebrate administrators who feel they have to cater to the students because, after all, education is now a form of consumerism. Here’s Gloeckner’s ending:

I was hired because of the creative work I’ve done, and there was a time when I was happy to share my work and the work of artists I admire with my students. The art that interests me, as well as my own art, is messy. As in life, ugliness and beauty coexist. Some might feel the need for a trigger warning on nearly every page.

I now avoid talking about my work unless students ask me about it. I’m not proud of this.

34 thoughts on “A disturbing tale of R. Crumb vs. fragile students, and the demonization of a professor

    1. DEI is an industry now and not simply a subset of the HR departments. So when your career depends on finding offence, you are going to find offence.

      1. Though petty on my part, I’m always tempted to write the acronym as DIE.

        Diversity, inclusion and equity=diversity, equity and inclusion … right?

        To me, it shows how incredibly silly and granular many of complaints these language-based outrage-mongers manage to conjure up.

  1. Yikes! Of course the Wokeratti of today would be deeply offended by quite a lot of the 60’s art scene. Much of it was meant to be jarring, and that is the goal of art. Pity the perspective is lost on them.
    I recently saw a documentary about the history of National Lampoon (the parody mag + its many spin-off movies). It streams on a variety of free services, btw, and I highly recommend it. These students would be apoplectic over any page of that publication in its heyday!

  2. I’d like to believe that a university level student wouldn’t take a course that he or she deemed ‘offensive’ to his/her sensibilities, but it almost seems that students now seek these courses out in order to showcase their ‘power’ and gain social media cred by shutting them down. I agree with you Mr. Coyne and don’t see this stopping until university administrations find their collective spine (if they ever really had one) and say what Reed Hastings of Netflix recently told his employees. To paraphrase, “If you don’t like the content we’re producing, we may not be the right place for you to be working.”

  3. The attitude taken by these students doesn’t strike me as one of fragility per se, but as conviction. They seem to see themselves as Champions of the Oppressed — those who have been made fragile by their racial, homophobic, transphobic, white colonialist oppression. They search Gloekner’s course material like superheroes discovering clues to the Villain’s evil plan and mode of attack. “This time, we will not fail” intones Iron Man to the other Avengers. Too much is at stake here.

    I’m tempted to sentence the lot of them to a season living in one of the more distressing totalitarian regimes. See, here. That wasn’t oppression; this is oppression! Unfortunately, I’m not sure if it would give them some perspective or just make them take notes.

    1. I often fantasize about taking no-nothing wokes on a tour of some of the many extremely racist, violent, homophobic (but not “Fat shaming”) countries I’ve visited, including Lebanon in an actual war. There’s a lot of ignorance both geographic and temporal in the youth.

  4. I really am at a loss to understand why the students involved wanted to take this course in the first place, or indeed go to university at all. The only activity that seems to interest or excite them in any way is finding ways to complain about their course and teachers. The idea that they might actually learn something new, or discover an unexpected enthusiasm for something they didn’t know before, doesn’t seem to occur to them — presumably because they regard the educator’s job as simply being to validate and affirm what the students already know and approve of. Utterly pitiful.

  5. What is more, her miniatures are beautiful. Her love and intimacy with the subjects just pours out of her. I can see them being on proud display in a gallery in Mexico, where they would be understood quite well. That’ll show ’em!

    1. There are thousands and thousands of small figures depicting Mexican town life, made by Mexicans for themselves and the tourist trade, at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico — an astonishing place and unique in my experience (such as it is). I don’t doubt that this rising culture of offense and victimization would have little difficulty in denouncing IFAM with post-colonialist high dudgeon.

  6. “… involving both the Office of Institutional Equity and The Office of Diversity Equality and Inclusion…” U. Mich., with its very large diversicrat population, may need two or possibly ten such offices to keep them all busy. This case reveals a whole new field of activity for them: not just satire, but also academic discussions of satire. We already know that satirical expression is forbidden, due to the harm it poses to the ironically challenged (in both senses). The investigation and pressuring of Gloeckner now show us that even any mention of satire is too dangerous. Goodbye Juvenal, Swift, Hogarth, Dickens, Orwell, Aldous Huxley, etc. etc. All discourse in today’s groves of academe must be as solemn and po-faced as possible—otherwise one or another of the Offices of Institutional Rightthink will hold investigations.

  7. “Why are you showing us even more [allegedly] racist images?”
    It’s a course on the history of comics (and comix)? So these images were published…in the past…i.e. history. Shouldn’t these students expect the past to have been chock full of racism and sexism? It’s bad enough to try to censor contemporary art (gasp! depictions of Mexican bodies!!1!), but trying to police the art of the past is just ridiculous gaslighting.
    I don’t get it.

  8. I am soon to return to university to complete a degree I left in 2013 in order to meet obligations for a job I have accepted. I’d also like to complete at least a B.S. in biology, botany, or geology that I had somewhat pursued around the same time. So one degree for work, for for intellectual satisfaction. The first can probably be completed online, not true of the second. I can keep to myself for the first, but will be in classrooms, in public display for the second. Needless to say, I’m terrified. The science degree will probably have to wait, maybe just remain a dream, but I cannot afford to pass on the other degree. It really is the difference between economic self-sufficiency and working poverty. I still struggle to accept how the threats to education have gone from the conservative Christian Right to the so-called progressive liberal left.

  9. Crumb always was an edgy subject. I remember, even back in the 70’s, that this was transgressive. But even I knew that was to allow him to help us consider our foibles and failings.

    1. Not to mention the detailed perversity of the S. Clay Wilson strips, which I vaguely recall were often bound with Crumb’s in Zap and other comix. The Checkered Demon would no longer be smiling.

  10. Correct. College administrators are spineless and incompetent. Boards of Overseers, alumni, state legislators (overseeing public universities), and parents should take note—and take action. DEI apparatchiks need to be reined in and academic freedom reinstated.

    What about the students? They, too, have a vote. They can stand up and demand better from their institutions. Or, they can go elsewhere. Mimi St. Johns, an undergraduate at Stanford who spoke in the STEM session at the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference, is an example of a student fighting back. She has a strong backbone. She will go far. (You can see her speak in the video that Jerry just posted.)

    I’m the meantime, Dr. Gloeckner should take her talents where they can be appreciated. She deserves better.

  11. I remember coming across Crumb’s cartoons in the late 60s, and I too was pretty shocked. And then I was delighted. I didn’t then know the extent to which he was wrestling with his own demons; I just thought how great it was that he was not only pushing the boundaries, but taking the p*ss out of so many conventional attitudes at the same time.

    In #2 above, Mark mentions National Lampoon; and indeed it would cause untold disquiet to the Church of the Perpetually Offended, as would its predecessor, the Harvard Lampoon. Imagine anyone in Harvard trying to produce anything similar today! And I wonder what the reaction of Prof Gloeckner’s “students” would be to a comic such as the “Schoolkids’ Oz” of 1970: https://flashbak.com/schoolkids-oz-read-in-full-the-magazine-that-started-a-revolution-56985/

    Is everything in the world just a source of offence for this lot? What on earth do they do for fun?

    1. >”What on earth do they do for fun?”
      Go to climate conferences in hopes of hooking up and getting laid? They talk of Zooming it to save emissions but Sharm el-Sheikh is a happening place. Everywhere young people gather away from home is fun, like summer camp with an expense account. Or like the Olympics for people who weren’t good at sports.

      Remember, it’s all performance. Their shtick is just to make trouble for people for fun and profit, acting out offence. It’s what they do. Out of public view amongst themselves they like what all young people like: sex and drugs and rock’n’ roll.

      The National Lampoon. Ah yes.

    1. Ugh. As a Washington State resident I couldn’t help but look. The fact that about 1/3 of their blog entries discuss why Jews are poisoned by their “whiteness” and should be excluded tells me all I care to know.

  12. Funny, I was literally just wondering the other day what young wokelings would make of Crumb. I remember listening to him years ago in an NPR interview say something to the effect of “I have no secrets.” Unthinkable today.

  13. “Fragile and easily offended”?

    To the contrary, they’re actively seeking power, as shown by their comments about the other teacher.

  14. I am a 70 year old feminist and I wear a Crumb “Keep on Truckin” t-shirt. He was the epitome of cool and a few other things! I’m trying to understand how we can learn history or anything if we censor it. Most of us probably wouldn’t like a lot of historical figures if we actually met them – doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know about and study them. But, I did have to draw the line when my dear, but clueless, mother found a few “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” comic books of mine, and was going to give them to my great nieces and nephews (around 5 years old). Ahem, no mother, not appropriate!

  15. As a permissive-era one-time-doper aged 76 and living in warm Cambodia, I wish Phoebe every joy and prosperity and a better – and more tolerant – billet than chilly bloody Michigan. There’s a new militantly-anti-woke university in Texas which might welcome her.

    Censoriousness and prudishness? Shock and distress at seeing cartoon depictions of parts of the human body? Young Andy and Wendy are distressed – or pretend to be distressed – by stuff which their grandparents’ generation accepted with a chuckle or a shrug.

    What was one the prerogative of cops, magistrates and judges is now considered the appropriate area of interest of easily-offended students who are appalled – or who pretend to be appalled – at the rudeness – and *sexism* and *racism* and so on and so on. There is a poem by Yeats on the subject of [some] Irish university students joining the campaign against *immoral literature*.

  16. On Hearing That the Students of Our New University* Have Joined the Agitation Against Immoral Literature

    Where, where but here have pride and Truth,
    That long to give themselves for wage,
    To shake their wicked sides at youth
    Restraining reckless middle-age?


    * The refence is to the then-new National University of Ireland, then almost 100% Catholic, NOT to the far older Trinity College

  17. Dunno who is standing in for Phoebe Gloeckner if she has been sent on gardening leave pro tem – but I have a suggestion for him/her/them [etc.,] Set a class project . . .

    CLASS PROJECT: Look at the work and style of a cartoonist your like and then copy the style to depict Judith & Holofernes OR Salome and the head of John the Baptist.

    OR a spot of outdoor hanky-panky with the Sabine wimmin.

    That ought to keep the kiddies busy and happy.

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