Diversity Takes a Hit at MSU’s English Department

In 2011 I returned from a successful book tour in Germany where some of my audiences had been college students and I found myself missing the classroom intensely. Three days later, I received an email from the chairman of Michigan State University’s English Department asking if I’d consider teaching there.

Of course I said yes. When we met for coffee, I told him about the serendipity. He said that he’d reached out to me because I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together and I had unique experience in publishing that the academic writers didn’t.

I remembered the department’s home in Morrill Hall fondly–it was where I did my PhD–a 19th century building that was down-at-heels but spacious and full of character.

(Lansing City Pulse photo)

I was only back there again for a semester before we moved to offices in another building on campus. These offices were cramped and utterly soulless. The conference room was brightened for me, however, by large framed posters of writers featured in the Library of America series. There are hundreds of books put out by this nonprofit organization whose aim is “to celebrate the words that have shaped America” and their publications cover several centuries of American writers of all kinds: poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, historians.

The framed posters in that conference room happened to be of a diverse group of writers who had all inspired me in my career as an author and teacher: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain.

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Baldwin, for example, changed my life when I discovered Another Country in high school because that bestselling novel spoke openly about sexuality and race in the 1960s the way that none of my assigned readings did, and in prose that was sometimes breathtaking. I’ve since read it novel many times, always finding new wisdom.

“I think you’ve got to be truthful about the life you have. Otherwise, there’s no possibility of achieving the life you want.”
― James Baldwin, Another Country

The conference room itself was grim and shabby around the edges. But the posters reminded me of the joy of seeing the world through completely different eyes, the fascination of watching students discover new viewpoints and revel in or wrestle with them, and how powerful authors motivated me as an author myself to keep working at my craft.

Returning to the classroom was exhilarating, and I felt as inspired by those writers as by my college mentor whose own teaching was witty, compassionate, and incisive.

I’m not at MSU anymore (I teach online at writewithoutborders.com), but I was still surprised and disappointed when several friends in the department recently told me that the Library of America posters were coming down. None of them could offer a compelling explanation. Or explain why when the removal was first announced at a faculty meeting, some professors were enthusiastic and practically cheered, as I was told.

That’s a very disturbing response at a time when universities around the country are focused on diversity and inclusion. More than half the writers in the group are Black, gay, lesbian or both. Why would anyone be happy to see them disappear? And why would the department want to symbolically cut itself off from a rich, diverse American literary heritage? What kind of message does that send to students and the university as a whole? What kind of statement does it make about the department’s priorities? And really, what on earth does anyone have against James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest post-World War II writers?

The department’s web site states that should the Internet ever collapse in some kind of apocalypse, books would still survive and “continue to galvanize readers.” I guess their authors won’t matter, though.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  This piece originally appeared in the Lansing City Pulse.

Universities Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

The New York Times recently told the chilling story of a woman doctoral candidate who left her doctoral program in the late 1960s because she was sexually harassed and assaulted.  As she recounts it:

“There was no word for sexual harassment, there was no language for this, there was no Title IX, no administrator to report it to. I felt shame as if I had done something wrong, and there was no recourse. So I left.”

Well, despite Title IX and administrators to report such conduct to now, two women I know at the university where I was recently a visiting assistant professor were not a whole lot better off.  They each felt that their complaints about a graduate student they accused of stalking, harassment, and assault were grossly mishandled. One woman was my office mate, the other was a student who had taken five courses with me, and gone on a summer abroad program in London that I co-taught. Disgusted, my office mate left Michigan, and my student left the university before graduating because staying there was too traumatic.

Their stories and similar ones around the country inspired my new mystery State University of Murder.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  Those two women were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear horror stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is the chairman mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.  And to the women students and faculty who find their universities toxic despite how far we’ve supposedly come from the 1960s.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder and his June workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

University Abuse Scandals Inspired My Latest Mystery

People often ask me at readings, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In another context, the writer Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances are everywhere and all the time.”  That’s how I feel about my books: a door can unexpectedly open whether I was looking for one or not.  I walk across the threshold and discover a new world.

After I returned in 2011 from another book tour in Germany, the chair of the English Department at Michigan State University asked if I’d consider teaching for them.  I was delighted because I come from a family of teachers and had taught at various schools for over a decade before he contacted me, including two years at MSU after I earned my PhD.  He was delighted to have me join the faculty because in his words, I had published more books than any single professor and more than the entire creative writing faculty put together.

Flash forward a few years.  One afternoon, my office mate looks shaken and she tells me a terrifying story of an ex-boyfriend breaking into her apartment and roughing up her current boyfriend.  The police get involved, there’s a restraining order, but she eventually comes to feel that the department and the university fail her.  Soon after, one of my students tells me about being stalked and I quickly realize she’s talking about the same man.  She ends up leaving MSU before she can finish her degree because she’s so traumatized by how dilatory and even hostile MSU officials seem to be in dealing with her case.

Then the giant Larry Nassar scandal breaks.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  The two women I knew were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear these stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is he mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay quiet tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including the just released State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop at writewithoutborders is Finding Your Memoir and runs for the month of August.