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.