Weekly Link Roundup: 11/13/2015

Let’s just dive right in.

  • By now, you should know about the incendiary and distressing events at Yale and Mizzou. Regarding Yale: understand that this is about more than an email or even offensive Halloween costumes. This is about the daily struggle of minority students and students of color for dignity, a sense of belonging, and a respectful environment free of psychic traumas. Viet N. Trinh, a doctoral student at Yale, answers Erika Christakis’ perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately thoughtless and insensitive letter about racism and “free speech” in a more nuanced way than we, as outsiders to this struggle, perhaps could.
  • To that point, this New Yorker article by Jelani Cobb is a thoughtful response to the Atlantic’s finger-wagging piece about student activist ‘intolerance,’ (as if students with material privilege cannot experience racism), centered on the protests and debates at Yale.
  • Cosmopolitan, of all places, has a urgent and important take on the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former police officer accused of trading on his power as a law enforcement official in order to sexually assault black women. Why isn’t this getting the attention it deserves?
  • The Nation has an important take on the resignation of Tim Wolfe, and the ways in which exploited student athletes can fight back against administrations. In the article’s words: “The administrators created a world in which universities revolve socially, politically, and economically around the exploited labor of football. Now let them reap what they sow.”
  • On decolonizing the kind of yoga that exploits the exotic for profit: “As an Indian woman living in the U.S. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many yoga spaces. At times, such as when I take a $25.00 yoga class by a well-known teacher who wants to “expose us to the culture by chanting Om to start class“ and her studio hangs the Om symbol in the wrong direction, my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst.”
  • And finally, news that’s a little more lighthearted: I love advice columns, and I love Mallory Ortberg. Two great things collide!

What Is A Zombie? or: 7 Ways to Teach the Undead


So, I teach a college course about the zombie in popular culture. Well, actually it’s about academic writing, cleverly masked as a course about the zombie in popular culture. Using writing as a process for thinking (rather than a product of thinking), my class attempted to articulate what about the zombie makes it a particularly suitable monster to represent the social anxieties of our contemporary cultural moment.


In my piece on body horror, I claim that  “Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture”. Never has this been more more true for me than when talking about zombies in the classroom. Part introduction to zombie-research-methodology, part homage to my brilliant students, this post features some of the most important discussions we had this semester.


  1. Monsters can do critical work: The first article we read in my class contends that the monster  is “born only at this metaphoric crossroads as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”*.. The importance of recognizing that even fantastical, imaginary bodies can speak to the real world highlights the fact that no instance of discourse is value-free. But I don’t need to tell you that…

zombie cartoon

  1. Loss of agency is scary. While reading and discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s account of zombies in Haiti (Tell My Horse), my students became fascinated with the intersection of  zombies and human agency. We decided that one of the scariest things about the zombies of Haitian lore is the loss of control experienced by the zombified person (It’s widely recognized that Haitian zombies are deeply interconnected with the island’s history of slavery). Our society is filled with institutions and people that will try to deny that my students are individuals, or that they have agency over their own bodies. Thus we are always at risk of being treated as zombies.zonbi_UMich


  1. Love at first sight does not exist. Also, google “Eat Me zombies” at your own risk.

In the short story “Eat Me” by Robert McCammon, we get to see the world from the perspective of a dead zombie who only wants to find love in the post-apocalyptic world. When he meets a shy, but romantic-at-heart female zombie, they return to her apartment and engage in zombie intercourse: literally eating one another. Their carnivorous carnal act results in their bones floating away from the world, leaving nothing behind but a necklace found by a small boy on the other side of the mountain. My students: “This is not love. This is lust. They barely know each other.” Okay then. Also, the group that presented on this text warned us that google searching “eat me zombies” leads to a weird corner of the internet.

Dubious zombie-themed boxers...
Dubious zombie-themed boxers…

  1. Institutions both perpetuate the fantasy of the American Dream, while keeping people from actually being able to achieve it. Many of my students are in college because they are chasing “the American Dream”: to graduate, get a job, and pursue some form of professional and/or personal success. However, as they acknowledged, there is a well travelled road that leads from pre-school through the bachelor’s degree (and increasingly to other advanced degrees as well). But my students are—when pushed—disillusioned with this reality. School is expensive and there are increasingly fewer job opportunities after graduation. They are told to explore coursework and follow their interests, but are bound by general education requirements–like my course–and they are forced to pay for coursework that they see as irrelevant to their careers. As we increasingly saw throughout the semester both in our course readings and in the real world, the institutions we thought were in place to protect us and allow us to flourish–higher education, the government, legal institutions–are actually cutting off our potential, so much the more if you are not a straight white male.

zombie_city-t2Thus, the zombie apocalypse provides a mental playground where we can imagine a world without the institutional structures that keep us in the thralls of particular hegemonies. But the freedom of the  zombie-apocalypse is a ruse. In almost every text we read or watched this semester, we saw the way that people were reorganized, either top down (often imposed by military force) or bottom up through collectively enforced social behaviors. We asked the questions, “despite our desire to be free from the strictures of abusive institutions, do we know how to live without them? Does the toppling of one regime always lead to another, more violent or more authoritarian than before?” Thus zombies apocalypses provided an important space for students to discuss the abuses of current authoritarian institutions as they tried to imagine whether or not society ever has a way out from underneath certain structures.


  1. We are not special…but we want to be. Part of the fantasy in watching zombie media is imagining that  we would be the survivors; we would be Michonne with the katana, or Daryl with his sassy poncho and crossbow. But, as my students were quick to point out,  it’s a bit silly to imagine that we would survive, especially as middle-class Americans who generally lack survival skills. However, the zombie apocalypse can be a powerful fantasy that someday there will be a situation where the societal values of the current world, like wealth and social standing, will not necessarily translate to the new world order. Those of us with skills or characteristics that society has devalued will have a chance to reign in the apocalypse–or so the story goes.


  1. Does the zombie apocalypse merit changes in our ideas about morality? Through watching and discussing human behavior in TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” my students took up the question of morality in the zombie apocalypse: do human morals change in reaction to an apocalyptic scenarios? And if so, what are the stakes of this changing morality? Obviously, we did not definitively answer these questions. However this conversation made me realize that zombies could be a way of discussing otherwise highly contentious issues of religious or philosophical import by masking them in hypotheticals. Though focalized through the zombie apocalypse, my students were really asking “Do our ideas about morality come from an objective source or is morality also a social construct?” Giving students a way into these kind of discussions without the heavily loaded context of religion allowed for various viewpoints to be heard without anyone feeling personally attacked (or at least, that’s how the conversation went in my class).

  1. People often treat bodies that look or act differently than themselves with suspicion disdain, or violence, trying to cite the differences as indicative that the other body is less than human. One of my students wrote a forum post on the movie Warm Bodies where a zombie man falls in love with a human woman, and after proving to her they are really the same on the inside, they ride off into the sunset. (Okay, so it’s more complicated than that…but I don’t want to spoil it!) My student said that on the surface, you could read Warm Bodies as a hopeful text that shows that if we try to get to know people who seem different from us, that their differences will disappear. However, he acknowledges that bonies (super devolved zombies) trouble his happy conclusion: (with his permission) “through this metaphor the “bonies” could tell us that you should not care for people who are too different from us, because some people are just completely bad and don’t have a good/human side”. This posting, when shared in class, lead to a discussion about how zombies are essentially humans who we have “permission” to kill because they threaten to overtake our society. Our conscious need not be troubled by their deaths because these undead aren’t seen as human.


On the last day of class we discussed how this attitude towards zombies is shockingly similar to attitudes about various groups of disenfranchised people across our globe. We treat some bodies like zombies already. If they are threatening us,  it is okay for us to kill them. But perhaps zombies have the last laugh—in our destruction of their bodies, we prove we are no better or different than they are. They are our future.


Each of these takeaways could be its own blog post (or really, its own book) and it feels a bit like an injustice to my students to characterize their intellectual work in such broad strokes. But the larger purpose of my post is to serve as a primer of sorts for how people think about zombies.  the kinds of critical work that zombies can do as metaphors for consumer culture, representations of disenfranchised bodies, catalysts for investigations of human morality, and grisly reminders of our own certain demise. By viewing the zombie as inextricably bound to the society that produces and consumes him, we can be better attuned to the way that our own fears, desires and anxieties are reflected in the zombie body. In this way, we can read zombies not as an Other, but as a reflection of ourselves.


* Jeffrery Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory, pg. 4

Adventures in Mental Unwellness: Grad School Edition

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

Grad school, though, is a whole ‘nother ball game. Of course, I had been mentally preparing myself for this. But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and quite another to face it head-on. Or, more precisely, to have your worst fears about academia hit you all at once with the speed of a bullet train.

Maybe I’m overstating things a little, but that’s probably as close as I can get to describing what grad school was like for me over the past year.

On my cohort’s first day of orientation, a wise upper year had told us, “Everyone in the program has imposter’s syndrome.” That had been very reassuring at the time, and I’d tried, at particularly difficult moments in my grad school life so far, to recall that statement and to internalize it. And yet my experience of imposter’s syndrome cut much deeper than I had anticipated.

There’s something peculiar about the English graduate program milieu that makes you overanalyze every little interaction you have with anyone else in the department. We are trained to overanalyze what we read, but when I entered the program, it became more and more difficult to disengage from this mode of thinking when I wasn’t studying. I found myself becoming increasingly performative, unconsciously basing my sense of self-worth on the judgment of other people – my professors, my peers, and so on. I think all English grad programs condition their students to think that way – to strive to present or perform better versions of themselves. This is especially true in particularly cutthroat programs that foster competition among their students, but even though there isn’t a toxic sense of competitiveness at UVA (quite the opposite, in fact), I still couldn’t help but measure my achievements and my work unfavorably against that of my colleagues, who, in my view, belonged here that much more than I did.

The more I interacted with fellow members of my first year cohort, the more I questioned my place in the program. They all seemed to be so eloquent and hardworking, but instead of being inspired by their example, I only grew more critical about my own competence. My peers were doing intellectually fulfilling work and networking with all the right people, while I only wanted to watch TV in my spare time. I became more introverted and socially awkward than I’ve ever been, because I was tired of trying to recalibrate my persona to better match up to that of my overachieving colleagues. I could barely make an effort to connect with professors outside of class (even though establishing good relationships with professors had been so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling in undergrad, and was part of what compelled me to apply to grad school in the first place), because I didn’t have a clue about what kind of research I wanted to pursue and didn’t want them to find out I was a hack. Because I was so concerned with struggling to perform a better version of myself, my self-perception became dangerously warped. When colleagues complimented me on a presentation I gave, for example, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were just being nice, because I’d become too unsure about my competence to know whether any of the work I was doing was valuable.

This was only the beginning of the program, and I knew that more challenging work would follow later on. So I expected coursework to be manageable – for my graduate seminars to just be more advanced versions of my undergraduate courses. And that is in fact what they are. But under these particular conditions, coursework became much more difficult than what I had prepared for – I seemed to have become a worse instead of a better reader. Whereas I’d tried my best to be a lively and interested participant in my undergraduate classes, in my new seminars I struggled to utter anything coherent – or anything at all – and wondered if I just couldn’t understand or interpret assigned readings as well as everyone else. Sometimes, in particularly dense texts, words on a page would become meaningless strings of letters to me.

I couldn’t write my essays with the same schematic efficiency with which I was used to tackling them. Essay writing had always stressed me out more than any other type of assessment, but I always tried to be strategic about it: I knew what I needed to do, and how much time I needed, and was able to follow a schedule for the most part, even if the end result wasn’t always satisfactory. Since coming here, however, the strategic game plan I became so accustomed to following had broken down almost completely. This past semester especially, I only found myself staring into the space between knowing what I needed to do for a particular writing assignment and actually doing it. I couldn’t get the words out.

I became terrifyingly ambivalent about departmental social events, because I knew that I would feel too self-conscious to socialize properly if I went, but isolated from potentially fun and generative interactions if I didn’t. I began to sleep too much, or too little. I would deliberately stay up very late, way beyond any legitimate point of wakefulness, because I didn’t really have anything look forward to the next day, other than the work I was avoiding. I’d made myself an emergency pick-me-up YouTube playlist in anticipation of particularly bad days, but on most days when I’ve really needed something to lift my mood, I couldn’t bring myself to even open any of the links. I would just stay in my room, and cry a lot, without being able to discern exactly why I was crying other than because “I was tired.” Sometimes I even struggled to leave my room to do the most basic things, like eating or taking a shower. In short, I became very depressed.

This is not my first encounter with depression. I was clinically diagnosed when I was nineteen. I have been to therapy, and taken antidepressants, though ultimately I’ve found that the most useful thing for me was to do little things on a day-to-day basis to keep my triggering emotions under control. It worked for me in undergrad – for a while, I was “better.” But the thing about depression is that even though it can be treated, there’s no complete cure. It’s like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well, trying to climb closer to the top, and sometimes succeeding. But sometimes you can slip and fall, and discover that what you’d previously assumed to be the bottom of the well is a false bottom, and that you can fall even lower. Grad school revealed a false bottom for me. I thought I’d gotten better, but after I came to grad school, the irreconcilable gap between my desire to be a good student and my inability to do so made my unhealthy thoughts that much more overwhelming and debilitating. I’d hit a new low, and am still trying to crawl my way up.

I haven’t told many people about being depressed, not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m afraid that people will treat me differently. This is a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. When I’m not in an especially bad funk, I can turn my self-deprecation into humor, and in making fun of it, make myself feel better about it. I can be fun and sociable. But I kept it mostly to myself, because I didn’t want to deal with the stigma, the damaging stereotypes that people still have of what depression means. I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to tell people that I couldn’t just change my mindset and get better. I was afraid of being handled like a delicate object, of people telling me I should seek help, drop out of school, and so on (especially because variations of all of these things have been said to me before, on occasions when I was feeling particularly vulnerable). Worse yet, I didn’t want to be dismissed as “crazy” – I didn’t want to be more socially isolated than I already felt. But finally, I had to confess – I had to get the words out, even if they end up doing me more harm than good. It isn’t my job to demystify depression to anybody, but I wanted to be honest. I wanted people to understand that, even if my depressive thoughts may overwhelm me without warning, I can make decisions for myself. Even if I may not always succeed at it, I am an adult.

I’m not confident that I’ll get better. But I’m not convinced that leaving grad school would be the right thing to do, either. I think it would be too simplistic to identify grad school as the “cause” of my depression, even if it exacerbated many of my worst symptoms. But what’s to say doing something else would make me “happy”? I’m not ready to give up on grad school just yet. I’m struggling to rekindle my former love of what I study, because there was a time when I was a curious and inquisitive burgeoning literary scholar, and I miss that.

I have new challenges to look forward to next year, and of course, more time to think about if this is what I really want to do. For now, though, I think I’ll stay where I am, because even if it’s not always fun and not always rewarding, coming to terms with my depression in grad school has nonetheless been a productive learning experience. And so, in spite of all the difficult things I’ve been grappling with over the past year, I’d like to keep pursuing this, as though it were an adventure.

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