What it Means to Ban a Book

Todd Parr’s brightly colored children’s books are among those challenged. Some contain images and descriptions of LGBTQ+ people or families.

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”

Potter Stewart, Associate Justice, US Supreme Court
Sex and religion-two things that often lead to attempts to ban books.

By Erika Grumet

The only book my parents ever took away from me was Catcher in the Rye. There are a lot of reasons someone might want to take that book away from a child, but none of those were the reasons my parents confiscated it from me. My parents took the book away from me because I was ten-and-a-half years old. I’d been given the book by a cousin–he had just turned fifteen. I had always had a (well deserved) reputation as a book nerd, and so when he offered a book and told me I’d probably love it, I accepted happily. 

And I did love it. Not because it’s J.D. Salinger’s best work (it isn’t–I much prefer his short stories,) but I loved it as a ten-and-a-half-year-old because it pushed the boundaries on “vulgar” language beyond any book I’d ever read before. I didn’t understand the book, didn’t get the idea of the transformative journey, or realize that the story was about Holden Caulfield maturing in spite of the desire to resist maturing. I didn’t realize that it was the story of Holden’s experience with anxiety, depression and PTSD. I just knew it used language in a way that no other book I’d read before did. That’s the beauty of books in some ways… that you can get completely different experiences out of one book, depending on the times and circumstances in which you’re reading it. (Robert Munsch’s book Love You Forever is a great example of this…different as a child than as a parent, and it takes on a totally new dimension if you know the actual story behind it.

My parents weren’t the book banning, censoring type. They weren’t outspoken about it, but definitely expressed an anti-censorship position if the topic came up. I knew the significance of the number 451, and the plot of Farenheit 451, because it had been discussed at dinner when talking about book-banning, long before I was old enough to read the book. My parents were the ones who gave me books and who made books accessible–I was surrounded by the books my mother had read as an English major in college, novels of all sorts. They gave me copies of Robert Heinlen’s books when I asked about them, and my mother bought me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I asked. When I looked at the ALA’s list of top 100 Banned and Challenged Books in the 1990s, after counting the ones I’d read, at least 85% of those were books I’d first been given by my parents, even if some were later read again in school.) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom even before I was reading chapter books. I grew up surrounded by books that were or still are frequently challenged and I didn’t even know that about them until later. It was kind of wonderful.

I remember how upset I was at having Catcher in the Rye confiscated… and it wasn’t even a permanent thing–my parents were quite clear that I could have it back “later.” We all know how frustrating “later” can be when you’re a kid, though. That unspecified period of time in which something off limits where some change takes place that is the catalyst for being allowed to have whatever it is that has been forbidden. You only hope that you’re not let down when you finally are allowed to taste the sweet, once forbidden, treasure.

For kids, censorship undermines the opportunity to ask questions, to grow and to develop critical thinking skills. I grew up in a family that valued education, shared knowledge, and taught me the importance of pushing back against things that are unfair. My own passionate activism about causes I cared about began as a child, and that included making sure that I had access to books. 

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, though, and choosing books for a kid is different from choosing books as a kid. My approach with my own kids has been “age appropriate, but honest,” which meant that, at age 6 or 7, my oldest and I had our first conversation about 9/11. I’ve got some amazing kids who aren’t afraid to speak up when things aren’t just, but I still need to guide book choices and make recommendations. When books have come on our radar that might be better saved for later, whether for the content or the language, I’ve typically said something like “You can read that book because you have the skills to read it, but the theme/content/details/story might be something that you save for later because of [reasons]. If you decide to read it, we’ll talk about it whenever you want to, and you can always put it down and come back to it if you want to.” It’s worked well… although I’ve still agonized a little over when to share beloved books from my own childhood. Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (which regularly appears on the frequently banned and challenged books lists because it talks about things like faith, but also menstruation and bras–misogyny in action) was one of those books that I looked forward to my own kids reading, but which I treasure so much that it had to be given at the right time. Too soon and the topics would be uncomfortable or not relatable, too late and it would be harder to fall in love with Margaret and her insecurities. 

Book banning also means kids may not have access to information they want or need… the right book can accurately fill in gaps where kids may have questions that adults aren’t ready to answer, don’t want to, or don’t know how to answer. It can help kids understand perspectives different from the ones the adults closest to them may be sharing with them. In my own home, books opened doors to awkward conversations about some things–most kids don’t want to talk with their parents about things like puberty or sex, but they’re conversations that have to happen. I used a variation on a technique I remember from the comic strip For Better or For Worse and dropped a book on the bed when the child wasn’t home, and left it. Eventually, curiosity ruled, and the kids picked up the books, and when I noticed that happening (usually because, instead of on the table or the shelf, the book would suddenly be in the bed or the bathroom, or stuck between the wall and the bed so that no adult would notice), I would casually mention that if they had questions about the book, I’d be happy to talk about it…and finally I’d press the discussion a little with a car trip… trapped together and no need to make eye contact means it’s easier to talk about difficult things.

With the age-appropriate but honest approach, books aren’t off limits…and so I realized I haven’t talked as much about banning books and censorship as I probably should have with some of the kids I spend time with, and so I asked some teens about it. Their passion for making sure information was available was comforting and their hypothetical approaches to different situations showed thoughtfulness and wisdom that I was astonished by. These kids very much favored the idea that books should be available and accessible and only “dangerous” books should be forbidden–the example someone gave was “like if it showed you how to make a nuclear bomb at your house with a battery and a paperclip, and you could split atoms that way.” Their perception of “dangerous” really focused on physical safety, not intellectual or emotional, which, knowing these kids, probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. They were very clear though, that there were books that maybe schools shouldn’t have in their libraries (no particular titles or subjects came up,) but that public libraries are vital to our communities and need to be places where ideas can be free for everyone and controversial books should be there whether they’re books you agree with or disagree with. 

I was fascinated with the way they advocated for the right to read, and their suggestion that parents should be the ones responsible for deciding whether controversial books were okay for a kid to read or not. And there was a very clear sense that if a book were to be assigned for school and a parent wanted to challenge it, the school should prevail… the benefits to the many outweigh the limitations of the few, or something like that. We talked about language–the isms and phobias and things like that–and how there are books that might have value because of their cultural influence or literary influence, but that use words or tell stories that we might not be okay with if they were happening now… and these kids understood that those problematic things can be important and are valuable sometimes for their place in our history and sometimes as object lessons to remind us how not to be. And we talked about how books can help kids get information they might need that adults don’t want them to have… about things like coming out, or staying safe from abuse, or not getting pregnant. They had a long list of things that kids should be able to have information about, whether their parents wanted them to have the information or not. When I pointed out some of the most banned and challenged books between 2010 and 2019 they were shocked to discover some of their favorites on there. The Harry Potter series, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, the Bad Kitty books…they were surprised when I pointed out these were banned or challenged books, and they wanted to know why. 

There are some conversations that are just not easy to have. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them, it means we have to work that much harder at learning how to have them, how to be vulnerable and honest and admit sometimes we just don’t know, or that we’re scared or confused, or that we feel ashamed about things, but don’t know how to process that feeling or experience. The books we’re trying to protect kids from are often books that touch those same feelings. Do we ban Huckleberry Finn because it’s racist or because we (collectively) feel shame about the racism it depicts, and we don’t know how to talk about it? Books which feature bullying, like Judy Blume’s Blubber often end up banned or challenged because we don’t want to, or don’t know how to, talk about the cruelty among children, or because we want to retain the ideas we already have about power instead of breaking down and redesigning the structural support columns that have held us up for years. 

We can be vulnerable with kids, we can be vulnerable with adults,we can be honest that we’re not always comfortable.

When does it become okay to allow one set of feelings–confusion, embarrassment, vulnerability, uncertainty, to make the decisions for others, to deprive them of what they need in order to protect a few people. 

Half of the banned books in the last 10 years have contained LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Eight of the top 10 books of 2019 had queer content. Books aren’t banned because they’re controversial; they’re banned because they challenge ideologies held by people who want to maintain power. Books are banned or challenged when they amplify the voices of marginalized people. If enough of us receive support and empathy through our writing, then change can be made to systems that uphold heteronormativity, cisnormativity, racism, and xenophobia.” (Amber Leventry writing for ScaryMommy, 9/29/21)

Banning books isn’t really about protecting other people from information, is it? Could it really be that what it’s about is shoring up our own comfort, and not being willing to take the time to do the work to deal with the uncomfortable parts? Can we embrace, even if it is little by little, one person at a time, the things that we need to do to become comfortable in our awkwardness?

Maybe someone needs to write a book about it. 

(Season 5, Ep. 5) Peculiar Affairs in Academia with Dr. Michael Nevradakis

No photo description available.
(clockwise, Adam Katz, Andrew Rimby, and Michael Nevradakis)

Our podcast episodes will now premiere on Mondays at 5pm. We’re taking a break from the Big Think this week, but it will be back next Monday. Look out for some exciting Banned Books Week content on our blog page and on twitter @ivoryboilerroom.

Listen to the Episode

Dr. Nevradakis’ interview acts as a sort of “Professor Is In” case study. He opens up about what to do when your academic advisor falls off the map, and how to figure out a fulfilling academic pathway when the odds are stacked against you. He gets into the dreaded sense of imposter syndrome and paranoia that PhD students are faced with and how to work through this.


Michael’s Dialogos Radio and his LinkedIn

Our Ivory Tower Boiler Room Voicemail:
Kelsey Dufresne’s NC State University Page

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Banned Books Week

By Adam Katz

Banned Books week starts Sunday, September 26, and runs through Saturday,
October 2. Check back here in a few days for more content!

When we talk about banning books, what are we actually talking about? I can think of a lot of books that should be (or that, in effect, are) banned from high schools. Paradise Lost is one example. I loved it. Starting when I was about 23. Even in college, I found myself put off by its intricacies; in high school, I would not have made it past the first page. Come to think of it, all four of the books I centered my dissertation on would be inappropriate to teach in high school, specifically because of their difficulty.* But they’re all perfectly fine to read in college or after. So there are books that are inappropriate for children.

Now the question is whether books can be banned on ideological grounds. Sophie’s Choice came up in conversation the other day. I read this book when I was 19, or thereabouts, and what troubled me about it at the time was not the eponymous choice, though, to be sure, that is a hard passage to read. No, the issue is that it is a book about a Polish person of non-Jewish descent being accused by a Jewish person of complicity in the Holocaust, when in fact she is a survivor of the German camps and he, born and raised in the United States, is not. The whole story-arc struck me at the time as giving the lie to Jewish responses to the trauma of the Holocaust. The idea of centering a non-Jewish survivor is a good one; the idea of making her tormentor a Jewish man is cynical and ugly. I don’t think the book should be taught to high school students, nor to anyone, without a very thorough examination of the history surrounding its polemical construction. With the right approach, of course, you can teach anything.

A recently banned author, Kyle Lukoff, of whose work I am fond, was probably the inspiration for my thinking of banning books as something all educators do, at least implicitly, and not just bogeymen like Christian conservatives in faraway school districts that are, I realize, not far away for some. The following is from Lukoff’s keynote speech for the American Library Association:

“…before my first school year started, I went through the collection and pulled every picture book I could find where an animal or child wore a stereotypical “Indian” feather strapped to their head. I firmly believe that such depictions are dehumanizing, part and parcel of the larger white project of anti-Indigenous oppression, and while I was fed a steady diet of racist books as a child I did not want to inflict that upon my students. In the winter of 2014 I weeded almost every book in the collection about the police, because in children’s literature, nonfiction about the police always presents them as community helpers who keep good people safe, and that is inaccurate.”

It’s much easier to talk about books we would not like banned, because that makes us feel righteous: “Look at these books they want banned! Aren’t they barbaric for banning our precious books?” Maybe. But they’re trying to create a society according to their values, and to control the factors that influence their child’s development. Same as you. If I mentioned that To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of the books parents most frequently ask to have removed from the curriculum, a typical white, liberal American (like me) might be instinctively outraged. If I clarified that the NAACP is asking to have TKAM removed from curricula because it privileges the white savior narrative, would the same person reconsider their outrage? And what about bumping a book off the curriculum because of #MeToo, like my one-time favorite poet, Pablo Neruda? So the uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves are:

-What kind of adults do we want our education to produce?
-Are we prepared to make, and fight for, those arguments?
-Are choosing a book and banning a book two sides of the same coin?
-What about reading a book that is problematic, but scaffolding the reading so that young learners understand why it’s problematic?

This book is banned for being weird and trippy

So the question I have on my mind as we go into this Banned Books Week is: which books do you think should be banned, and which do you think should not be, and why?

*The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, Arcadia by Philip Sidney, and The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish are the other three.

Featured Author: Dr. Steve Voris

This is an unusual one for us, which we’re especially happy to have. Steve and Mary DiPipi went to the same MFA program. As you read this story, you’ll notice more scaffolding than usual: a couple paragraphs of introduction explaining why the story was written, a bunch of discussion questions at the end showing how the story was used. Literary creativity shows up in a lot of places and for a lot of reasons. Also, it’s a really good story, as you’ll see.

Our theme this month, apropos of the start of the school year, is “Back to the Books,” and so, without further ado, here is a creative piece that shows how literary artistry can lead the way in education.

Enjoy!

Midweek Teaser: Dr. Michael Nevradakis and Academic Corruption

Plaka district of Athens in Greece, courtesy of iStock

This week’s guest, Dr. Michael Nevradakis shares a Stony Brook connection with Andrew and Adam. Dr. Nevradakis is also a former podcaster, and so it’s no surprise that their interview quickly finds a rhythm to talk about some of the real vulnerabilities faced by graduate students and early career academics… especially when it comes to their relationships with those who are more established in their careers. 

Dr. Nevradakis’ interview acts as a sort of “Professor Is In” case study. He opens up about what to do when your academic advisor falls off the map, and how to figure out a fulfilling academic pathway when the odds are stacked against you. He gets into the dreaded sense of imposter syndrome and paranoia that PhD students are faced with and how to work through this.

When you hear someone tell stories like this, you often look for the common denominator and discover that the storyteller is that common denominator… and you wonder what it is about them that seems to invite the terrible things in. You’ll find that isn’t the case with Dr. Nevradakis. As you listen to Adam and Andrew talk with Dr Nevradakis though, you’ll hear more about the lack of accountability that can exist in academic environments, the precarity of being an outsider, the challenges of existing in that graduate-students grey area, lacking the backing and support that faculty are often accorded while still taking on many of the same tasks that faculty are doing. And you’ll hear what happens when decorum or collegiality seem to be forgotten.

Adam’s Big Think #5: Sticking Your Nose in a Book

By Adam Katz

Do you think books mind when we read them?

Here they are carrying on with their lives, being beautiful or terrible according to how they were written, and we come along and literally stick our noses into their business. There are some people—scholars, philosophers, authors—who treat books as if they were alive. I once attended a talk at which the modernist literature professor Edward Mendelson said something like: “If you demand things of a book, you’ll never get the answers you’re looking for. You have to ask them questions and be patient if they don’t answer as directly as you’d like.” Another time I went to a book-signing and Q&A with the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she said she does indeed have trouble writing a sex scene when she knows her father is going to read it. These two anecdotes do not make the same point, but there is a through line: books change, depending on who reads them—or who is going to read them.

But what about rereading? I pick up a book I ostensibly know the plot of already, as well as the characters. And yet it’s not the same book this time as it was the last time. I notice different things; I focus on different things; I may see pessimism where I once saw optimism, or vice versa. Sometimes the transformation is so complete, it’s tempting to think the book has changed and not I (this is to say nothing of reading a book in a different translation from last time).

There are a few books I just can’t stop revisiting. One of them is The Lord of the Rings. One is Pride and Prejudice. King Lear, The Once and Future King are two more. And two that are less popular than these others but no less magnificent, Song for Night by the Nigerian expat Chris Abani and Gora by Rabindranath Tagore. I’ve literally lost track of how many times I’ve reread any one of these books. And anyone who has taken a literature or writing class that I’ve taught since about 2014 can add one more name to the list, because I always start the first day of any class with “Reunion” by John Cheever. Yes, always. If you’re wondering why, this is why.

I could honestly write about any of these works and you’d get a pretty good idea of what my relationship with all of them is, but I’m feeling like going Early Modern, so let’s talk a walk down King Lear Lane together, shall we? For me, I can’t talk about King Lear without talking about the year 2009. I was in a serious romantic relationship, teaching summer school in Newark, New Jersey, and worried about my job prospects in the midst of the financial collapse (for you readers still in your twenties, that’s the recent financial collapse, not the current one). So one day I took a train out from Manhattan to Newark to attend a job-fair for prospective teachers, and I read King Lear the whole time that I wasn’t desperately, futilely networking. It may be that the bleakness of the story mirrored the bleakness of my mindset on that particular day, but I remember being much cheered by reading a Shakespearean tragedy in which half the named-characters get murdered and at least two others die of heart attacks.

I hear you asking why?—or how?

I think King Lear is a bit like the “magic” ring from a Jewish folktale that can make a happy person feel sad or a sad person feel happy. The story goes that a criminal can discharge his debt to society by scouring the world for this ring, and, in the end, it’s not magical at all; it’s just some old ring that has engraved around the band: “This, too, shall pass.” So. If you’re in a good mood when you read King Lear, you might find the eye-popping level of violence (see what I did there) distasteful. But if you are in a foul mood when you read it, you might end up noticing that Edmund’s last wish is to do a little bit of good. That Lear’s and Cordelia’s respective last wishes are to spend a bit of long-overdue quality time with each other. I always come away from those harrowing last few pages thinking: the future is promised to nobody. But at least we can spend as much time as we have with the people who matter to us. For Lear and Cordelia, that ends up being less than an hour. But less-than-an-hour is infinitely better than nothing, which is what they had before.

In fact, a significant number of the deaths in Lear are accompanied by a moment of redemption. Gloucester, blinded and put out of his own castle, gets to embrace one more time the child he had spurned. Lear, finally seeing that he put his trust in the wrong daughters, gets the same opportunity with Cordelia. Edmund gets to try to save some of the lives he put so needlessly in jeopardy. For all the carnage of King Lear (and there is a lot… some scenes would make Quentin Tarantino pitch a tent, provided, of course, that the actors played the scenes barefoot) it is especially moving that this is such a strong theme throughout the play: whatever time you have left, use it to try to do some good, even if you don’t succeed. I do find it unfortunate that the queer themes, so prevalent in the Sonnets, are either absent or deep undercover in plays like Lear. But that’s why we have Shakespeare’s bolder contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Look him up some time and you, too, might make a friend.

James Earl Jones as King Lear, 1974; Raul Julia plays Edmund the Bastard

And yes, as someone who has struggled with depression, I’m mostly in a foul mood when I read that book (or watch one of the filmed versions; the two times I saw Lear played live I was decidedly in a good mood because live theater does that to people).

Anyway, when I finish reading, I usually feel at least a bit better.

Looking back, I find some more details about my relationship with this play interesting. First: it wasn’t my favorite when I first read it. Some books or plays, my first interaction with them is enough to sell me on endless rereadings. The moment I started reading The Once and Future King at age 14 or so, I was hooked for life. Same with Song for Night, which I basically can’t read without crying. Lear? It took until the first time I saw it performed before I was hooked. I was in college. I had first read the play maybe a year earlier. And now here were all these people I knew personally. Lear was played by a guy who was in the same seminar with me when we read it. Gloucester was played by the guy who lived next door to me freshman year. And so on. There were some creative touches, too, to the performance. When Regan and Cornwall went to blind Gloucester, they palmed blood-packets to make it seem as if they were really ripping out his eyes. And the illusion worked. Then the two started making out with each other right in the middle of the torture, and I’ve rarely been so creeped out in my life. This was maybe 15 years ago and I can picture it like it was last week. They got some of the blood in their mouths as they kissed. It was magnificently unnerving. #CouplesGoals. The other live performance I saw of King Lear was also really good. Lear was played by John Lithgow, whom I don’t know personally, but he did a good job, too.

If I’m honest, I don’t think King Lear is the best of the best Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s really high on that list, but for my money, the best of the best is Troilus and Cressida. But Lear is MY favorite, and I think that it’s because of those two live performances, one surrounded by friends (both onstage and in the audience) and the other so dearly bought: waking up at 3 AM and stumbling to the subway to get tickets to the last performance of the season at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, bowled over by the talent of John Lithgow and the rest of cast, and all this taking place a single day before I moved from New York to Stony Brook. It occurs to me that if I wanted to restructure this essay a bit, I could tell you why I love my favorite books, while hardly saying a word about the books themselves; focusing instead on how they have become indispensable parts of my story. So in that way, a book is like a friend. A best friend isn’t called ‘best’ because they’re the best at something. No, it’s because they were there for you in a way nobody else was, at a time when you really needed someone (or you were there for them). And if I look over the books I hold most dear, the stories that come to mind are often my stories, surrounding these books, as opposed to the plots of the books themselves. A few examples will suffice:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My brother was assigned this book as summer reading when he was about 16, and he just couldn’t get through it. A book where everything is subtext can be a little much for a fidgety teenager. So we all took turns trying to read it to him. But if he was 16 then I was 12 and there is no way I was going to make any more headway into that book than he did. I re-encountered it in college and found myself charmed by its humor. Later the audiobook version became my go-to  entertainment when I was doing chores around the apartment. And as I navigated the storms of interpersonal relationships, I found myself asking more and more: What would Lizzie do? Because I admire her for standing firm. Or what would Darcy do? Because I admire him for being willing to change. So ironically, my first impression was a prejudicial one, and I have since overcome my pride and fallen in love with the book. 

Gora by Rabindranath Tagore. This is an easy one. I bought it at a second-hand bookstore in Bangalore and read it in a sleeper-car traveling from the south of India to Bombay. The person I was traveling with (and still am, in a sense) kept stealing it when I wasn’t looking, so I had to fly through it (also I flew through the pages because I wanted to know what would happen next). It actually reads a bit like a Jane Austen novel if the not-so-secret subtext to the marriage plot were focused on religion instead of economics.

The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. This is a book I inherited my love for from my mom. She used to say that she would reread The Lord of the Rings when things were hardest because it reminded her that there were people and ideas worth fighting for. And now I use it in the same way. This book gets a lot of shit for having so many paragon-characters, but the point that that criticism misses is that the paragons are not characters; they’re window-dressing. The evil in this story may be pure evil, and the good may be pure good, but the main characters—the Hobbits—still live in a world that’s almost hopelessly shaded with grey. Yes I know I’m breaking my rule and talking about what’s in the book but it wasn’t a very good rule in the first place. While I’m on the subject, I am sad to report that the racism of the book grates on me a bit more with each reading. North and West are always good; South and East are always bad. The paragons look Teutonic and the faceless hordes of the enemy often look Middle Eastern or African. It’s a lot to overlook. I honestly don’t know why I am still ok with a book that has so many issues. I may have to make that the subject of a future essay. But anyway, now that I’ve broken my rule, I can begin talking about the books that I fell in love with as books, like Chris Abani’s Song For Night. But honestly I’m not fully sure how to talk about that one. You need to just go read it and then you’ll see. It’s not long.

Anyway, I don’t really believe that books are sufficiently conscious that they feel intruded-upon when I crack the spine and start prying into their personal affairs. But in a way, when I am reading them, mulling them over, asking them questions and being patient with the answers, I can’t help but think that they are keeping me company in the way a person would be able to do. Or that, as with any friendship, I am conversing with them; visiting with them. Books, particularly the ones that are like old, comfortable friends, can occupy that middle ground: when I don’t want to talk to a person, but neither do I want to be alone. That is a bleak thought, read a certain way, and probably makes me sound more self-centered than I’d really like. But read another way: books, especially my old favorites. keep me sane. They teach me to be a better person. And in their own way they’ve got my back.

(Podcast Release) ‘The Professor Is In’ Meets ‘The Ivory Tower Boiler Room’

Clockwise from the top left: Adam Katz, Andrew Rimby, Dr. Karen Kelsky, Kel Weinhold

The Professor Is In team, Dr. Karen Kelsky and Kel Weinhold join Adam and Andrew in the Ivory Tower Boiler Room. Their discussion centers on ending gaslighting and how to push for more equity in academia.

Listen to the Podcast

Some Topics Covered:

-Academia is a cult in need of transparency

-Who is expected to bring social change? Overburdened women, queer people, and People of Color.

-#MeTooPhD: How and why do supposedly modern, liberal professors allow (and even perpetrate) sex-crimes on campus?

The conversation between Andrew and Adam and Kel and Karen is a laugh-filled trip through a world of serious issues, providing a great reminder that humor is a wonderful antidote to the stress that we’re all feeling and an important way to take care of your mental health.

Karen Kelsky, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Academic consultant,Career coach, writer, and speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Professor Is In
theprofessorisin.com. You can buy Karen’s book, listen to the podcast, check out the blog space.

Kel Weinhold (she/her) is a productivity coach who works with Karen on The Professor Is In https://theprofessorisin.com/unstuck-the-art-of-productivity/

You can find both Karen and Kel on social media (@theprofessorisin) and on facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/TheProfessorIsIn/
https://www.facebook.com/groups/professorisout

Resources Mentioned in the Episode:

BLK + In Grad School: https://www.blkingradschool.com/

Dr. Helana Darwin: https://helanadarwin.com/
Our podcast episodes featuring Dr. Darwin.

Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein: http://www.cprescodweinstein.com/

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider making a donation to help us grow our literary and artistic community.

Friday Preview: The Professor is In

Friday is upon us once again, and pumpkin spice season has already descended on the Ivory Tower Boiler Room… as evidenced by a lively discussion in one of our recent meetings about pumpkin spice vs apple as the better autumn flavor. Erika, who is usually the one encouraging us to “embrace the and” came down firmly on the apple side of things. 

courtesy of theprofessorisin.com

This week Andrew and Adam sit down with Karen Kelsky and Kel Weinhold to talk about the innovative academic mentoring over at “The Professor is In.” While the conversation is filled with frequent laughter, no one avoids talking about the difficult things. They talk about the ways that academia is like a cult, and the risks of conforming, or resisting conformity, by learning to “speak like a straight, white, male.” Questions about #MeTooPhD come up and why modern, liberal professors still allow, or even perpetrate, sex crimes on their students. The discussion also asks why so much of the onus for social change is left to those already carrying the heavier burden: women, queer people and People of Color. If you found yourself nodding along at any of these topics, we hope you walk away knowing that there is support and community waiting to help you, and that you have options.

After you listen, you’ll keep wanting to know more about these guests, so keep reading to find out more about Karen and Kel.

Kel shared the following answers to our fabulous questionnaire with us:

1.What are you listening to, reading, watching?

Listening: “Keep It” and “Unlocking Us.”
Reading: “Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought.”
Watching: “Astrid” and “Unforgotten”

2.Do you like to cook? What is your favorite thing to make?

I love to cook. I was a chef in a former life. Last year I was fixated on Japanese food using the blog https://www.justonecookbook.com/. In the past few months, I am all about Indian food via Chaheti Bansal and Rooted in Spice https://www.takeme.to/rootedinspice/

3.What is something you have read and loved, and wish more people would read?

Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark.”

4.Did you grow up with video- or computer-games? What were/are some of your favorites?

PONG! (I’m 60)

5.You’re taking a sick-day from work. What movie are you putting on?

Notting Hill

6.What’s your favorite excuse for why you have writer’s block?

I am sooooooooo busy.

7.What’s a book everyone says you should read, but you either read it and hated it, or haven’t read it.

Anything by Jane Austen. Same goes for those Bröntes. They are tolerable, but not compelling enough to tempt me past a few pages; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to characters who are demeaned incessantly by asshole men. Don’t @ me.

And Karen’s also shares her answers:

1.What are you listening to, reading, watching?

The Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel. I’m on book three and I love it. I say, “excuse me while I go back to the 16th century.” It’s my coping mechanism.

2.Do you like to cook? What is your favorite thing to make?

I do like to cook but Kel’s a former chef and does most cooking; however, I’m awash in fresh garden heirloom tomatoes so in the past three weeks I’ve made salsa, pico de gallo, Greek haloumi tomato salad, an INCREDIBLE masoor dal bhat, Japanese tomato shiso salad, multiple capreses, a spectacular basil garlic pasta sauce, and a Moroccan spiced bisque. With more to come!

3.What is something you have read and loved, and wish more people would read?

The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964)

4.Did you grow up with video- or computer-games? What were/are some of your favorites?

Nope. I’m 56.

5.You’re taking a sick-day from work. What movie are you putting on?

Knives Out 🙂

6.What’s your favorite excuse for why you have writer’s block?

*gestures widely*

7.What’s a book everyone says you should read, but you either read it and hated it, or haven’t read it.

Every Harry Potter book (and this long predated the author becoming a notorious TERF). Those are just objectively bad books.

And as always, the team has kept our own lists of what we’re watching, listening to and reading…

Andrew has been busy this week reading Possession by A.S. Byatt to prepare for our first ever Ivory Tower Boiler Room Book Club! And, Hagar’s Daughter by Pauline Hopkins to begin teaching it in his “Whitman’s Multitudes” course. None of his students have ever read it so it’s going to make for an exciting classroom literary conversation. And since he’s going to be staying in Manhattan for his birthday weekend, he’ll actually get some extra time to read these texts on the train ❤️

 Andrew’s following Mary’s True Crime lead and got into Only Murders in This Building…He says “Steve Martin and Martin Short feed off of each other so nicely.”

For music this week, Andrew is celebrating the reopening of Broadway with the Beetlejuice, Wicked, and Lion King musical cast albums. Andrew’s also fully enamored and captured by P.J. Vernon’s Bath Haus audiobook! He reminds us that “the actors are so good. I have to be careful not to listen at night… it’s that psychologically thrilling.” (What a hint for our October Ivory Tower theme, too.)


Mary is still focused on reading We Keep the Dead Close.

She’s been watching Norm MacDonald’s standup (new and old), his Late Show appearances, and SNL characters ( “how can you forget Turd Ferguson?”) and says “rest in peace” to a comedic genius.

Last week Erika mentioned the Matrix 4 trailer… This week, Mary’s been listening to “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, which she recently heard in the trailer for Matrix 4: Resurrection. She is completely obsessed due to the references to Alice in Wonderland-Mary’s favorite children’s story. Feed your head. 


Erika and Adam are back to trading music recommendations again. They’ve both listened to recordings of Kol Nidre this week. Adam’s pick is this vocal version, while Erika went for an instrumental version… on viola of course. Erika’s Thursday evening writing began with Bach Cello Suites before she decided she needed something much more melancholy.
Adam also brought up Tori Amos’s cover of “Time” by Tom Waits, which Erika agrees is incredible. If you’re interested in the Tom Waits version, you can hear that, too.

Erika has been happily working her way through The Guncle this week and is so excited for Steven Rowley’s upcoming interview with the Ivory Tower team. Her reading time has also been a lot of WordPress related things, and things about alterous attraction. She is also incredibly frustrated because she is having an incredibly difficult time trying to get a copy of Meg Grehan’s Baby Teeth (queer love, lust, vampires and lyrical poetry…Erika is not the only one who finds this really exciting, right?)

It hasn’t been a thrilling week for things to watch, even if Erika is still doing more of that and less of other things than she would like. She was excited that Season 2 of DotGay’s The Library premiered this week (and season 2 of The Dictionary will premier next week, which Erika will definitely watch, too.) Erika is really just waiting for the premier of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. In spite of living in Florida, she was hoping things might feel safe enough to go see Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield in The Eyes of Tammy Faye but that will have to wait. In the meantime, whether you can or can’t go see it, Erika highly suggests checking out the 2000 documentary of the same name. And after mentioning it last week, Erika started watching SheZow again…performative gender with a little twist.

Adam has been reading while walking lately, which he can do when the streets are empty because of Yom Kippur and the like. We’ll see if that remains a safe activity. Reading what, you ask? Why, Adam happens to be a third of the way through The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography of Bob Moses and New York City. It’s an ongoing source of frustration because it’s too many pages and it’s too depressing (with all the corruption and political infighting and casual racism) and there are so many upcoming books to read for Ivory Tower Boiler Room events, but… when a book hooks you, it hooks you.

Adam has been listening to a bit of Brenda Harris’s operatic arias lately, as well as the aforementioned Tom Waits and Kol Nidre. And of course singing a lot of Jewish music (because it’s just been that kind of week for some of us).

Adam is nearing the ending of the sixth season of Buffy, and, not incidentally, could really use a pat on the shoulder and some assurance that things will be ok. They won’t, but as a wise person once said: “lie to me.”

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Featured Author: Shi Huiwen

The creative writing of Shi Huiwen is live on our website! In addition to being a lecturer and parent (and an early guest on our podcast), Wen is an amazing poet and we look forward to hearing what you think about her poem “Yesterday’s Nudity.”

You can access the poem here.

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider making a donation to help us grow our literary and artistic community.

Midweek Teaser: The Professor is In!

In the last year and a half, we’ve all gotten used to wearing masks… and seeing the faces of those around us covered by masks. That kind of opacity is the opposite of what we need in academia. This week’s episode of The Ivory Tower Boiler Room invites Kel Weinhold and Dr. Karen Kelsky to talk about unmasking the world of academia, and about why they created “The Professor is In” for their unique brand of academic mentorship. 

Some Topics Covered:

-Academia is a cult in need of transparency

-How to talk like a straight white male (and the risks and rewards of doing so)

-Who is expected to bring social change? Overburdened women, queer people, and People of Color.

-#MeTooPhD: How and why do supposedly modern, liberal professors allow, and even perpetrate, sex-crimes on campus?

The conversation between Andrew and Adam and Kel and Karen is a laugh filled trip through a world of serious issues, providing a great reminder that humor is a wonderful antidote to the stress that we’re all feeling and an important way to take care of your mental health.

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider making a donation to help us grow our literary and artistic community.

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