Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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Helpful Advice for Starting Out on The Twitter Dot Com

bau pals
Reading Your Tweets Like…

I suspect that much of PALS’s new growth on Twitter (aka #OnHere) in the past year comes via follows by new accounts. I don’t have hard data to support my observation, but I suspect PALS shows up more as a suggested follow, especially for new folks. Regardless, our growth reflects how Twitter’s algorithm works coupled with the way content moves #OnHere.

We have a small Twitter following compared to other academic blogs. We don’t have the large audience appeal working in the favor of many other collaborative academic blogs with a social media presence. The practical part of teaching American literature is neat, but niche. In the big picture, we’re small on Twitter. Our small size, regardless of our content, also reflects how Twitter works.

PALS has been #OnHere since August of 2015. It took a long time to grow our following. It took a long time to figure out how running an account for a blog/entity/thing versus a personal account differed. Many of us behind the PALS scenes have been #OnHere well before 2015. Still, we’re learning and figuring things out when it comes to tending to PALS and providing the content that #PalsNation wants.

I thought it might be useful to share a little bit of Twitter advice, especially since we have many new followers, including many graduate students. Graduate students are frequently told to get on Twitter or other forms of social media…

a mentoring.jpgHowever… Let’s be honest: in many cases graduate students are told to get on Twitter by 2 types of people: 1) Folks that aren’t on the Twitter Dot Com or 2) folks that are not good at the Twitter Dot Com. We are on the Twitter Dot Com. We’re decent at it. We’d like to share a few pieces of advice. Before we get into technical advice for starting up with Twitter, we’ll begin with philosophical advice.

A lot of Twitter advice focuses on being your own person on Twitter; it’s a recommendation steeped in a lot of privilege. You’ll find the “be yourself” advice in a myriad of advice columns; you’ll find such advice below. However, recognize that such advice often comes from experiences centered within positions of great privilege. It is important to take any advice with a grain of salt.

Nazi GTFO.GIF
BJ Blazkowicz gets it; Jack not so much.

Twitter has problems. There are rat bastards, trolls, and Nazis out there. There are people out there that will throw folks under the bus. Twitter can exacerbate systemic inequalities and can hang people out to dry. Twitter, the company, does little to stop this. All of the above doesn’t even account for the systemic inequalities within academia. Unfortunately, the work of supporting individuals attacked by sustained trolling campaigns falls on a larger community. You don’t have to engage with people. Mute and block are your friends.

Twitter is a weird platform and much of it has nothing to do with you. So, be cool with understanding that the workings of Twitter (platform and company) are weird (and often just bad). It doesn’t have all that much to do with you or the people you follow. We try to use Twitter to have a little bit of fun with PALS. We smash the retweet button. We post memes and gifs. We have a decent amount of engagement. However, Twitter isn’t what drives traffic to our site. On the flipside, Twitter is huge for making connections with folks interested in pitching a guest post. It has taken a while for us to get used to this facet of Twitter. For instance the recent meme-ification of PALS really didn’t happen until the coming of #WaltGrittman.

gritt loafe.jpg

Don’t worry about running with big accounts or big people. Be your own dog. Find fellow travelers in terms of personality and your personal and professional interests. For example, it has taken me a great deal of time to find a handful of folks that appreciate my humor. Find folks that share the same personal and research interests. Pay attention to your research interests, but if you like museums or zoos or whatever, then follow accounts related to those interests, too. You will find fellow travelers. It can take time. Finding new folks is a cool thing about Twitter. Finding your Twitter voice is a process. Again, be your own dog as best as you can. It’s hard not to worry about being yourself when there is so much self-fashioning and promotion on Twitter. There is a lot of self-fashioning in academia. Twitter turns self-fashioning up to 11.

Try to be kind. Don’t be a bad person. The thing about assholes on Twitter is that we tell them to be kind and nice, but they don’t listen. Don’t placate abusive or condescending people. It’s actually harder than it sounds because Twitter rewards bad behaviors with likes and retweets. Twitter often foments a feed frenzy. Twitter seems big, but it can be a small world, especially in how it functions like a little public square in the world of academic fields and subfields and subfields of subfields.

meerkat shit list
Not a lie.

Try to interact with other people, which is a hard thing to do for many of us. Wade into the discussions about your research interests. Get fizzy with the recurring debates about soda. Remember, Twitter is just weird. You don’t need to be on all the time, which is a hard thing to remember. Try to reply to people. Interact with them. Actually respond directly; don’t overuse the quote-tweet function. It takes a long time to figure out how to get a read on how some conversations work. Some conversations are a free-for-all. Some conversations are A-B conversations in public, so C your way out.

Some content resonates. Some tweets are duds. A lot of times the profound sinks to the bottom, but the mundane rises to the top. Just do you. It took me nearly 10 years to have a moderately viral tweet. I can’t explain it.

Twitter affords an opportunity to retool one’s scholarly interests outside of how the traditional academic world works. Running in certain circles means that I’ve been able to refocus my scholarly interests. Many of us at PALS have used Twitter to become early Americanists, for example.

Below you’ll find advice folks starting out with a new Twitter account. Again, keep in mind your own personal situation and account for your own internet safety.

  1. Use your own name, if you can, in the Twitter handle and in the name field for your account.
  2. Don’t be an egg. Make sure to include some kind of profile picture. Use a headshot, a picture of your research, an animal. Just don’t go with the default.
  3. Come up with a pithy bio for your account. Identify your affiliations and your research interests. It took me a long time to come up with a pithy bio. It took me writing a fellowship application to come up with my bio.
  4. Don’t go following crazy right away, especially with Twitter’s suggested follows that appear when creating a new account. Start building your Twitter network with people you know in real-life. By starting with people you know, you’ll build a network that will function as a way validating your account as one that is genuine.
  5. Tweet and reply to people in your initial network. You’re building up a sample set of tweets that demonstrate who you are as an individual #OnHere. Aim to build a record of consistent tweeting, maybe of 30 to 50 tweets.
  6. Start building the second level of your network. Start with your subfield; don’t jump right into the larger discipline. You’ll likely find it more rewarding to build a network of folks related to your subfield. Start by following academic blogs, professional organizations, & libraries/archives in your subfield. Then, check out their followers for further suggestions. You can build this network over time; no need to do it all at once. This manner of finding accounts is a much more fruitful approach than relying on Twitter’s suggestions.

Again, remember just to do you. It is okay to lurk and watch conversations unfold. Adapt anyone’s advice for your own circumstances. Welcome to the Twitter Dot Com. Hopefully this advice helps you with entering the fruitful and maddening world of Twitter.