Censorship and Book Banning in Texas…and Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey

by Project Censored
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Censorship and Book Banning in Texas…and Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey
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In the first half of this week’s show, Mickey speaks with three students campaigning against censorship in Texas, including Banned Books Week’s Youth Honorary Chair, Cameron Samuels. They’re associated with a group called SEAT (Students Engaged in Advancing Texas) and give updates on recent developments there aimed at more book banning and censorship of teachers. Then Adam Bessie discusses his newly-published book, Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey, about technological changes and challenges in education wrought by the pandemic, living with a brain tumor, and the ongoing impact of corporatization and privatization for teachers and students.

Cameron Samuels, Hayden Cohen, and Angel Huang are recent high-school graduates in Texas, now attending universities, who lobby against efforts by state and local authorities to ban books or impose restrictions on publishers and school librarians. They spoke with Mickey on May 22 from the state capitol building in Austin.

Adam Bessie teaches English at a Northern California community college. His newly published graphic book, Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey, is illustrated by Peter Glanting.

Video of Interview with Cameron Samuels, Hayden Cohen, and Angel Huang

Transcript of Interview with Cameron Samuels, Hayden Cohen, and Angel Huang

Mickey: Welcome to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today on the program we revisit. The issue of banned and challenged books around the United States. Of course, our listeners know that Project Censored is a long time part of the banned Books Week Coalition and also the National Coalition Against Censorship.

We do an annual show around banned Books week every year. In the past couple years, we’ve unfortunately had far too much to talk about because book bans book challenge challenges, curricular challenges across the US have spiked. They have increased an extraordinary amount. In fact if you look at Penn America, You’ll see that even just during the first half of the 22-23 school year, there were nearly 1500 instances of individual books banned, affecting over 870 unique titles, which was an increase of nearly 30% compared to the prior six months.

Of course we’ve also seen massive changes in state legislatures from Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, South Carolina, Oklahoma, other places, and even here in California. There have not been legislative attempts, of course, to ban books, but there have been local attempts to do so well. Right now we’re going to be turning our attention to one of these other states.

That’s really been on a roll as far as censorship and book banning happened to go. And that is Texas, Austin, Texas, the capital. And today on the program we are honored to have returning to the show Cameron Samuels. They, them, the co co-founder of students engaged in advancing Texas or SEAT. Cameron spoke with us on the Project Censored Show last September.

Cameron was the youth honorary chair of banned Books Week this past year, and Cameron distributed banned books and organized students to pack school board meetings in their hometown of Katy, Texas. Now they’re organizing in the Texas legislature against Academic Censorship legislation. Cameron Samuels, welcome back to the Project Censored Show.

Cameron: It’s great to be back, but unfortunately under these circumstances it certainly is necessary to be back speaking above the floodline of censorship.

Mickey: Absolutely. And it’s an honor to have you back on. I wanna also introduce your colleagues, your peers that are joining you here today. And of course, I want our listeners to know that I’m speaking with our guests on Monday, May 22nd.

This is prerecorded and these folks are actually waiting. For the Texas legislature to come out of recess to address the very issues that we are talking about today. So please stay tuned to the project censored.org website. We’ll have updates here and throughout our conversation today. Cameron and our guests will be giving places where you can follow their work.

We’re also joined. By Hayden Cohen, they, them an organizer with SEAT.. Most of their previous experience is with campaigns of local elections, lgbt qia plus students rights, including speaking in front of school boards, testifying at the state capitol, and the organized and educational programming. In the meantime, Hayden is a college student in Houston, Texas studying social work.

Hayden, banned to the Project Censored Show.

Hayden: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mickey: And also Angel Wong. She, her is a sophomore at the University of Texas. Austin Angel is a sociology major and aspires to attend law school to become a civil rights lawyer. And angel you’re sitting in, in, in the seat of power there in Texas, quite literally, seeing how that works. Welcome to the program today, angel. Thanks for joining us.

Angel: Thank you for having me.

Mickey: So let’s start with you Cameron. Just very quickly, cuz I know we want to get into what’s happening there today in Texas and wanna get our, our listeners updated on this and be able to follow the important work that you’re all doing.

Even though banned Books week is not until the first week of October, we are here and have been in the trenches. Just since last fall, and we’ve seen an extraordinary uptick, I have actually done two other shows and several talks across the country about banned books because this is an extraordinary phenomenon that we’re seeing.

We’re seeing a massive escalation of attempts to ban books to censor material, and to really suppress the kind of things that people, that teachers are allowed to teach, particularly in K-12 classrooms, but also in some states they’re going after the colleges. So, Cameron Samuels. Take a minute, remind our listeners about some of your extraordinary work from your hometown and becoming the honorary youth chair for banned Books Week, and then we’ll get some updates.

Cameron,

Cameron: honestly, banned Books week should be every week because of what we have been seeing in this past year. It’s so unfortunate that, I mean, in my hometown of Katy, the school board elections have only intensified this issue. The community is now. Giving more into this fear-mongering.

We’re seeing this issue prolong more books are being removed from shelves. It hasn’t really slowed down, but has remained pretty steady where students are continuing to speak at school board meetings. That fortunately has become a new norm. We have revolutionized our district where students are now empowered to speak at board meetings, but are their voices really being heard?

I don’t think they really are by the decision makers, the school board members in my district. Who had been opposed to our cause as students, when we distributed books, hundreds of banned books at after school clubs, the student leaders in our district that came together for these book distributions, we showed power.

We demonstrated our voice and our power by packing school board meetings, and they, they responded by reviewing and challenging the books that we distributed. So we were not even safe in that sense of protecting books when the books that we were trying to distribute and defend were now becoming more under attack.

Mickey: So, Cameron, you had a would you have say that you had a successful attempt at bringing awareness around this issue in your hometown? This is, of course, you know, the reason that I ended up meeting you through banned Books week was because you had done such extraordinary work on the local level.

Cameron: We’ve absolutely brought awareness and we brought action communities like Katy and across Texas and across the country, these issues are happening across the board and our organizing is replicable, and we have been organizing across the country. We certainly have brought this about, but when there are school board members, school districts, when their state legislatures, Are continuing to push this fear, push this, this policy of harming students by denying us the right to read and having equal representation in a diverse school library.

When this still happens and it’s continuing, then I mean, however louder voices are, sometimes the policy may just be in small waves, and that’s why we can’t just be silent. We did make huge successful waves, but it’s gonna require building these close relationships with decision makers persisting to communicate with them, to leverage that power and to continue on the front lines.

We can’t be silent and we need more people involved.

Mickey: Yeah. And Cameron Samuels you mentioned then the idea of the, the going to school boards. At one point you were a, a kind of a lone voice at your own school board meeting until other people started to say, Hey especially again, fellow young people.

Who don’t want to be dictated to, don’t want to have stories restricted that may enrich their lives or tell their similar stories. Right. And, and what we’ve seen across the country is that school board elections have, have become kind of a, battleground you know, even here in Northern California.

There’s loads of money that comes in from conservative organizations out of the state to prop up candidates for school boards that generally run on parental rights or some other kind of vague platforms, but they’re Trojan horses in many cases, for book bans, for censoring books, for restricting access to books and for potentially suppressing certain types of curricula.

And very quickly you know, get back to Pan America site.

There’s a type of book that is being, that’s more likely to be banned, right? 44% of them are that have have something about violence or physical abuse in them, 38% cover topics of health and wellbeing for students. 30% include instances or themes of grief or death.

All very important parts of life for young people or anybody. 30% include characters of color that discuss racism. Almost as many are about LGBTQ+ characters. Or themes. Right? So there’s a, it’s not just sort of anything that’s on the table. There’s a politically driven sort of agenda here about the kind of books that these folks are going after.

So Hayden Cohen, let’s bring you and let’s also bring Angel into the conversation. What exactly are you all doing around the issue with this organization’s SEAT? And what are some things that you’re, you’re seeing happening today? Hayden.

Hayden: So SEAT is kind of, we’re kind of trying to become the vehicle to help students just become involved in this political, in the political environment because it’s oftentimes very difficult for youth voices, youth to have voices yet alone, be taken seriously.

So we’re trying to ensure that we provide and help educate them on what’s actually having, like the process, the legislative session in Texas is very confusing to understand. And we even learn ourselves and we’ll ask each other questions. So we’re trying to help educate youth about that and then at points where they can get involved.

So you know, one of the biggest things we do is like, help kids get to testify as well as meet with legislators one-on-one. Whether that be Zoom or in person. And that significantly helps. And so that’s kind of what we’ve been doing since the legislative session starts. After the legislative session finishes, assuming we don’t have a, a special session we’ll likely focus more on local government, so local school boards and city councils.

Mickey: Right? And you definitely have your hands full there in Texas one of the bills that you’re all grappling with right now is I believe HB 900. Do, do any of you wanna address that or Angel, is that something that you, you can address?

Angel: Yeah, for sure. So currently we are here today to hear the Senate hearing for HB 900.

There’s a lot to say about it for sure. I think this is a very harmful bill, of course. And like we’ve talked to a lot of legislators and unfortunately a lot of these conversations regarding it has sounded very negative in terms of where it’s heading. because I think there’s a lot of support within the Senate regarding this bill.

And although us as students, the people who are actually being impacted by this bill, who are literally here right now telling them, Hey, we don’t want this. They don’t– there are senators who are listening to us, but there’s a lot of other senators who are not listening to us and are not doing this on our behalf.

We are here to tell them, Hey, we want, don’t want this. And we have worked on amendments. We have literally written out amendments to, to lessen the harm of this bill because we are fearing for the fact that it will pass and this bill will be detrimental to the, like, access of education we will be getting.

And I wanna expand on how in terms of that we’ve worked on also like expanding curriculum because of the fact. Because of the fact that we know that a lot of these bills will be passing, we are aiming to also look into a lot of the bills that were expanding curriculum. Unfortunately a lot of them were not be, be able to pass.

So we are looking into working on them later on through other means. But for now, we’re here to just talk to the legislator. Hopefully that will be listening to us and like hear that we are, we’re still watching them. We’re here, we’re here to like tell them no.

Mickey: Well, thank you so much for being so civically engaged around such a, a paramount issue.

You know, first amendment issue, the right to expression, the right to speech, the right to know, and academic freedom, right? This is a very, very important issue and it’s so important for young people to be engaged in it, literally on the front lines, and so you, it’s so, I appreciate it as an educator. And as someone that is very involved in these issues, I can’t thank you all enough for really doing the work and seeing how things go on and seeing how difficult it is to get these things happening.

And I know Hayden, you wanted to talk a little bit more about what the bill in consideration is, is designed to, do you wanna go ahead and talk about that? Sure.

Hayden: So oftentimes when we think about like book bans and challenges, We think that they’re trying to ban specific books and sometimes they are not this bill, though it’s a little bit weird in the sense that it doesn’t mention any specific books.

What it says is that it requires vendor book vendors. So we’re talking stores, online stores, physical bookstore, Amazon even, you know to rate every single book that they’ve got that is selling to schools as either sexually explicit, sexually relevant, or not. And they’ve formed this weird rating system with some very vague language in it too.

And then essentially what they’ve said to the vendors is, Hey, if you incorrectly mislabel a book, because maybe Amazon hasn’t read every single book that they sell, then no school district can buy from you until you’ve gone through this appeals process can buy any book from you. And so that significantly harms the vendors, but especially the librarians who very purposely choose what books they wanna purchase.

And how about this whole authorization process that sometimes is about a month, sometimes it is close to a year. To actually authorize the purchase of a school book for their students. Like this is not a simple process. And this bill essentially says to them, Hey librarians, all that education, your master’s degree means nothing cuz we think we know better than you.

And so, It will significantly affect the amount the books that schools can have. And then it, it pr it places the onus on the vendors. There are a few other parts of the bill. It’s a very, very long bill including saying that parents are the primary decision makers. Mm-hmm. And coming as a seat organizer, we really didn’t like that because we recognize that students are actually the ones affected by this one.

Mickey: Well, it’s you know, Hayden, thank you so much for bringing that up. We’re gonna revisit some of that. You’re gonna have a chance to talk more about the specifics that are, that are going on. And Cameron, I know you wanna jump back in and Angel, I know you’ll have more to say. I just wanna remind everybody that you are tuned to the Project Censored Show.

We’re talking about banned books once again here on the show. We are joined by. Cameron Samuels, Hayden Cohen and Angel Wong. They are part of an organization called SEAT Students engaged in advancing Texas. And we are they actually are in Texas at the State Capitol now as I’m speaking with them. This is a prerecorded show. It’s on this is Monday, May 22nd. There will be updates in news once this show airs. And again, we, we will certainly be coming back to talk more about it. That said, We’re gonna go take a quick musical break and we’re going to come back with our members of SEAT and we’re gonna get more specifics about what’s happening in Texas and what you can do to get involved in fighting against censorship and book bans in your own communities when these challenges arise.

Stay tuned.

Welcome back to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today on the program we’re addressing banned books once again. We are joined by Cameron Samuels, who is a co-founder of students engaged in advancing Texas, or SEAT. Cameron is also the youth honorary chair of Banned Books. Week from this last year, we are also joined by Hayden Cohen, an organizer with SEAT as well as Angel Wong. They’re all now in Texas and they are fighting against HB 900 and they’re trying to raise awareness around these efforts. And before the break, Hayden, you started talking to us about the very insidious vague language that’s in these kinds of bills that you know, really puts a chilling effect. It kind of casts a broad kind of cloud over vendors and librarians that really intimidate them before they’re gonna adopt the book. I mean, I’m a publisher as well at the Censored press, and we already know how long it takes for book, for, for books to be chosen by, by large districts, and these kind of, it’s already. Yeah. A bureaucratic affair and now you’re, they’re adding these layers of fear and concern over it that are literally gonna be putting a chilling effect over the kinds of books that people have access to read. This is what you three are doing right now on the front lines, fighting for the right to read, the, the freedom to read and the right to be taught things that are going on, and you’re also trying to protect the rights of young people.

And Hayden, you mentioned before the break, something very important that the language in these books, I’m sorry, the language in these bills. Is is, is part of the parental rights movement. We’re not saying parents don’t have rights, but it’s one thing for as a parent, I’m, I’m one, it’s one thing to suggest that, you know, I’m okay with what my kid gets to do or read or whatever perhaps, but that stop, that doesn’t give a parent the right to restrict the access to titles and books and things for everybody else.

And that’s a key part of the problem. So, Cameron Samuels, I wanted to bring you back in here because you were, chomping at the bit to get back into the, into the conversation before we had to take a break. So let’s, let’s go to you and then we’ll do another round and hear from everybody a couple more times here.

Cameron.

Cameron: Sure thing. Yes. Hayden brought up a provision in the bill about parental rights, how the collection development policies in school libraries would require a recognition that parents are the primary stakeholders in their students’ access to library materials. And this is one of the many bills that have been part of this parental rights movement this session.

And I mean this trend is happening across the country, but here in Texas that has been such a huge focus of this legislative session. And when you look at the issues, school, public schools in Texas lack so much funding the literacy. Rates of students, how students are excelling, especially after the pandemic is so challenging.

And book bans among many other of these issues are harming students by denying them not only the right to read, but to find a connection to their school libraries.

Mickey: It right, the right to representation, right, the right to representation, the right to read stories about their. Their communities, the, the in their voices.

It’s pretty extraordinary. And again, that chilling effect is very problematic. And another thing that, again, when you mentioned, I know it’s a catchphrase nowadays, the parental rights, right? But Cameron, what about students’ rights? What about civil rights? Human rights, what about Article 19 in the UN declaration?

Of human rights on the right to receive and impart information without any interference. Right? I mean, there’s so many issues here that are conveniently being ignored when we only focus on parental rights, but I think you, you see that as part of the strategy here in places like Texas. Is that right?

Cameron?

Cameron: Certainly. I mean, students are the primary stakeholders in our education and all these policies being made in the legislature are about us. But are without us at the table. We don’t have a, a valued voice in policy making in this state. Unfortunately, we are here, but as Angel said, they’re not really listening to us, the, the, those who are most affected.

As we walk through the school halls, as we sit in our classrooms every day, these policies are affecting us most directly. But they’re ignoring us. They’re neglecting us. And they’re not listening to our call to action. We need their support. We need them to involve us in this policy making so they can make policies that will support us and not ultimately harm us.

Mickey: Yeah. And Cameron, your organization SEAT, you want a seat at the table and your, I’m talking to you from what looks like an office in, in the legislative building now.

Yes, we’re actually in one of our supportive partners, representative John Rosenthal’s office.

Well, thanks to John.

Thanks to John for giving you literally a seat and a table to sit down and talk to us on the Project Censored Show. We here at the Project Censored Show are very interested in what you have to say and what you’re doing, and we’re honored to extend the platform and the microphone to you all today to come and talk to us about this.

Angel. Let’s bring Angel Wong. Let’s bring you back in a couple of other things that you wanna bring up about your experience there and what’s happening right now.

Angel: So well as, We’ve been to the Capitol multiple times this past couple months. I would like, theres has been so many interesting experiences with us.

I would say that although we have been speaking to representatives almost every month and we’ve been coming here on a weekly basis it just seems like the people who needs to listen the most are least likely to want to open up and let. Lend their ears and it’s very frustrating to have experiences where I have had friends of mine who would come here and try to have a civil conversation telling them, Hey, this is why it’s important to us.

Their office would literally reject them and pretend they don’t exist. Like there, there is a literal experience where one of the groups that we’ve had come to speak and just do ledge visits they went to, it was a bunch of high school students. They went to the, into, I. I don’t remember specifically which legislator, but they went to their office and everyone in the office, basically all the staff was talking to each other, mingling and chatting and just having fun.

And, but not even talking about important things. It was just daily chit- chat. And when one of our students went up to them, was like, Hey we’re here to talk about this. This caused whatever. Very politely, they laughed their faces and then told them this is not for this is a private entity, whatever.

You can’t come in here. We’re busy right now. And they just made them leave. And it was very disrespectful. And the fact that what, as the students were leaving as and. Although it was embarrassing, the, the students were still trying to be nice and being, thank you, whatever. The staff literally laughed at their face and started whispering to each other and be like, , why are they here?

Like, talking to each other as if the students weren’t listening. And it just really made an impact in how we felt in, in this building. It made us feel so uncomfortable. It made us feel like we were not bannedd and yet we’re supposed to be here. Like we, this is our given right. To, to be in this capitol.

Like it, it is our duty to actually be involved in this stuff. And the fact that they have rejected us and not listened to us, it’s their job to listen. And the fact that they didn’t give us the chance is so, so much, so much disrespect. And I think part, a lot of these legislators have forgotten who they work for in a way.

Like they’re representing us. And the fact that they have decided not to is just, why are you here? Censoring us when you’re supposed to be the voice for us.

Mickey: And the censorship and disrespect go hand in hand both in terms of legislatively and with the bans, but right down to the personal level of you exercising your civil rights.

And you are literally doing what you’re, you know, you’re allegedly taught this in school, right? That you’re supposed to be civically engaged and you’re supposed to show up and go there, and then you’re being laughed at by the people that are supposed to represent you. Angel, did you wanna say something else?

Angel: Yes.

So I wanted to expand on what you were, what you just said. I so I think it’s so interesting how a lot of the students we get involved today are not taught this at school, which is very sad that we are actually being rejected in school. And we were told like, Hey, like this, you are, you’re too small to get involved.

Like the government is something that you, you are unable to obtain because of the fact that you know, you don’t have power. And that the fact that we were taught that and the reason why we’re even here is because I learned from an outside organization, like I was lucky and I was taught out, like from an outside organization regarding this.

And I got personally involved, not because I was taught this at school, but I was like, I taught myself this and this is so upsetting that we are trying to expand that right now. And they’re taking that away from us.

Mickey: Hayden Cohen, you wanna come in here and it looks like you, you’re seeing similar experiences here.

You’re actually not being taught to be engaged.

Hayden: A huge amount of civics curriculum even education around voting is I don’t wanna use the word being banned, but essentially being banned.

They.

Especially from like the more conservative side, they definitely have been trying to ensure that students don’t understand how to be involved.

And that’s kind of where SEAT has been coming in and trying to educate. Because I mean, I will say like, so I graduated high school about a year ago. Not, not any point did we. Get any help with registering to vote? I think we may have gone a mail-in form at some point. We definitely weren’t learned about, we weren’t taught about the legislative session or how any of this works.

We weren’t taught about how we can get involved, how we could speak to representatives what’s needed to do that. What goes into, like how a bill moves through the legislative session what school board meetings are like and what they do. We weren’t taught any of this, and I know some states have passed curriculum to expand on that and to ensure that students don’t graduate without that crucial knowledge.

Texas is just not one of them. And so I think, you know,

Mickey: that’s absolutely what you just described. An angel described Cameron. It’s and Cameron, this is criminal, but this is, this is, it’s deliberately trying to keep people in the dark, literally and silent and just doing what they’re told.

It’s utterly authoritarian. Cameron Samuels, you mentioned that that civics was banned with HB 39 79. Did you wanna say something about that?

Cameron: Yes. House Bill 39 79 has. Been a has been creating a chilling effect in the past couple years after it was passed in the last session. And just as Hayden was saying, and Angel, we are having to learn about civics on our own.

We are lucky to be civic minded. We don’t have that opportunity in schools when the legislature not only is turning us away at their offices in the capitol, but they’re turning us away in our education, prohibiting us from having classroom discussions about anything relating to race that would make someone feel uncomfortable being white.

These provisions restricting discussion of current events. Are not preparing students to be active members of society.

Mickey: We should be doing the opposite. We’re supposed to be prepare, we’re supposed to address these issues directly in the classroom. The classroom is supposed to be the, the sort of bastion of, of both free speech and a safe space where you can hear disagreements and you can hear differing ideas coming from different sides so that you’re able.

To be more civically engaged. You’re able to be able to, you know, have a meaningful existence in a society that alleges to uphold these kinds of civic principles. But unfortunately, the things that I’m hearing from you three today in Texas is that it’s the opposite. It’s like upside down bizzarro world where this is happening.

Cameron,

Cameron: Books not bans like more bans are not going to solve any issues and we have to. Uplift the voices that have been silenced, that are not represented in the status quo, that currently is so unjust that students are not only left out but harmed, we, we have no place to go. I was lucky to have friends that could come together and then a community that could come together.

When I first spoke at a school board meeting in Katy by myself on such a sensitive topic. I, I, it was just me there. And three months later, a room filled with supporters. And that was only possible because we spoke above the floodline of censorship. We were able to bring people together in a movement, a student led and student driven movement that uplifted us instead of putting us down.

Mickey: Absolutely. Well, I can tell you, you’ll always have a seat at this table on the Project Censored Show, Cameron Samuels. Angel Wong, Hayden Cohen. Cameron, could you give a website or a place to follow the work or some ways that people can keep abreast of what’s happening and of course, what.

Happened today. Meaning because this show’s gonna air next week and things will already have happened. I know that you had shared with me an Instagram account that was StudentsEngagedTX to follow on Instagram Anything else you wanna share, Cameron, so people can follow or contact you all

Cameron: that’s perfect.

Yes. At StudentsEngagedTX on Instagram or reaching students where they are with actionable alert. And opportunities to engage in the legislature to develop transferable skills and demonstrate youth visibility and policy making.

So, angel, anything you’d like to add here at the, the last moment?

Angel: So adding on to what everyone has already said, I think an important point to make is about like, Let’s first look into why it’s so important that we need to have like, books and why you know, why are we trying to ban this? Of course it comes back to critical thinking. Mm-hmm. And how, how, basically, I think through this censorship, we are taking away the ability for students to critically think for ourselves, and this prevents us from using the power that we.

Are supposed to use. And this again comes back to how, you know, the First Amendment is about free speech, you know, but you cannot fully have free speech if you cannot have free thought. And if you have no free thought, then you cannot, you know, do your duties. And so I think it’s so important for us to have these questions and think about why we’re having these, you know, issues and what they’re trying to aim to do.

Mickey: Hayden Cohen, last words.

Hayden: Of course I, oh, everything Angel just said. And I think, you know, in terms of student involvement, especially around these issues, students do need to know, That you can absolutely pull up a seat, like get a full wheelchair. And there is always a space for students.

And while we talk a lot about some awful politicians and we’re fighting against some awful bills, there are still good people out there. There are great politicians that are on our side when we go testify. There are politicians that thank us for being young people at this mic. You know? And those are.

People we wanna work with and people we want to ensure will fight for us on the Senate floor, on the house floor on school boards. So get involved. Even if you’re too young to vote, there are ways to get involved.

Mickey: So Hayden Cohen, thank you so much for that important message in the work that you are doing.

Angel Wong, thank you so much for all you are doing, and of course, Cameron Samuels, thank you for continuing to do the work that you’re doing as the Youth Honorary chair for the Banned Books Week Coalition. Again on Instagram, StudentsEngagedTX, you can follow them there. You can also learn more at the American Library Association website, ALA.org, the Office for Intellectual Freedom catalogs, all of the attempts to restrict books and breaks it down for you there. You can also go to banned books week.org and also Penn america@penn.org. And I urge you to read the banned in the USA state law, supercharged book suppression in schools. Arm yourself with the power that knowledge gives and be engaged.

I wanna thank you all and you have my utmost and deepest respect. And again, anytime come back. Give us an update and thank you all so much for what you’re doing down in Texas today.

 

 

Transcript of Adam Bessie Interview

Mickey: Welcome back to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today in this segment of the program, we are delighted to welcome back Professor Adam Bessie.

Adam Bessie teaches community college and English in the San Francisco Bay area. He writes comics that have appeared in the New Yorker, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, Truth Out and with us at Project Censored among others. This, today we’re gonna be talking about his first book. You can learn more@adambessie.com.

That’s Adam, B e S S I e.com. And today we’re talking again about going remote a teacher’s journey. Adam Bessie, welcome back to the Project Censored Show.

Adam: Oh, so glad to be here. Back at Home Project Censored Home. Thank you. And

Mickey: oh, Adam, it’s such a pleasure. You know, full disclosure, we’re colleagues we teach at the same college and of course also we had a little hand in, in some of what you were doing here.

Of course, you and your partner, Pete Glanting, Peter Glanting, did the illustrations for this book. It’s a graphic journalism book, and it’s also. Part memoir and it’s a very striking work at the Censored Press. We were delighted we were able to work with you and our partners at Seven Stories , to put together just an amazing really an amazing book.

And I wanna have you I know last year we had you and Pete Glanting on the show, and we talked a little bit about that, but the book is just out, right? It just came out mid-May. And you are actually right now in Portland and you’re gonna be all around the San Francisco Bay area. You’re doing a book tour here over the summer.

And we wanna, we wanna talk to people about this because it’s, the timing of the publication I think is really interesting too, because your title going remote, a teacher’s journey talks about, you know, going online during the pandemic. And of course, it’s only been. Just in the past, you know, semester or two that many of us are going back to campus and we’re having some very interesting experiences.

But let’s get into all that by first starting with, with you, Adam, let’s start with the beginning of this book, this process. You originally published a piece of it in one of the projects, censored books with Pete Glanting, and it really just grew into this amazing project, Adam bessie.

Adam: Yeah, I’d love to talk about the origin story since this is a work of graphic journalism.

And so March 13th, 2020 is when this book began, even though I didn’t know it was going to be a book, but I knew on that Friday the 13th, that first day that we knew we were all going to go remote, that this was gonna be an enormous shift in the way that EDU public education was going to operate. And that.

This was gonna be, for lack of a better term, like a different paradigm, and there would be competing forces using this disaster to create either sort of, as Naomi Klein talks about in her essay at the time, a screen new age, or going back to her earlier work disaster of capitalism. The shock doctrine.

This could be a moment of disaster that could be seized by Silicon Valley and by other corporations to implement a more corporatized, privatized version of education. Or it could be a moment that those that are closest to the classroom, the students especially, and the teachers could use this to disrupt this pattern that has been ongoing for many years of technical privatization, corporatization.

And so the book was born out of the desire to capture that moment and that tension as quickly as possible while I was feeling it so acutely and it wasn’t for me an abstract, philosophical exercise, though as I’m talking about this with these big terms like corporatization, privatization. No, this was a profound sense of disorientation.

All I’ve ever known as a teaser, as you see in the beginning of the going remote chapter, which is chapter three of the book now. Is that this was my first time teaching online. I had only taught in person at the college I’m at now in the East Bay. I’d been there since 2006 and I had only been a human teacher with human students.

And I’d used online work in the background, but never as the primary means of instruction. So as many of my students were disoriented by this Zoom school experiment, as was I, and this was a work of graphic medicine for myself, like narrative medicine to try to get my arms around what was happening and how do we as folks that believe in human-centered.

Education and critical thinking and citizenship. How do we make this moment, not a dystopia, but a moment to create the change we’ve wanted for many years.

Well, Adam, Bessie that’s a, a striking vision. One that I think is, is met in throughout the text. It’s, it’s brilliantly illustrated. The writing is, is concise, yet poignant and it captures so much.

You just mentioned another phrase in another context, but I think it relates to, as you talked about, graphic medicine. Mm-hmm. You were talking about it in narrative form, but literally, This book is also part memoir because you are the protagonist in the film. I’m, it’s not the film, it’s the book. Right?

It could be the film, yeah. Film an animated film of your life basically. And in fact, you are on the cover, right? That’s Pete gland, gland’s rendering of you on, on the cover. So, but talk to us about that other part of this. We’re definitely gonna come back to education. There’s so much to say about that and unpacking that.

This is also a really central piece to this book.

Yeah, so this book is, even though it’s called a Teacher’s Journey, it’s about my experience as a professor, but also as a cancer patient. I have had a brain tumor since 2009 and my entire teaching career has been entwined with dealing with medication and treatment.

And so it’s also looking at this particular period of time in the pandemic through that lens of how having a significant illness and how I’m managing that on top of being a partner to my wife, Corin, and on top of being a parent to my son Saul. And being a person. And so even though the book is, is named a teacher’s journey, what I’m trying to do in the work is to push back on the dominant media narrative of the cardboard cutout of teachers that we don’t really see teachers as full people that have all these different facets.

If you watch. Other than Abbott Elementary, which is one of the only shows in media I’ve ever seen that represents teachers in more dimensions than one. But most media, corporate media, or any media, we really just are one dimensional and typically we’re lazy, not wanting to work. And this, this bad teacher Mythos, which I’ve written about for a long time, really got on steroids during the pandemic where teachers were not considered essential workers, but nurses and doctors were.

And lots of anger got funneled into teachers where we became, in many ways, like a straw man for parts of the culture wars. And so my hope with this work is by showing all these facets of my own life, like sort of subliminal things, is that teachers are people too. And that sounds not very insightful.

I. And, but that, that this teaching journey is happening within the context of my medical journey with being a parent in all these different intersections, which is really what schools are made of. They’re not just made of teachers and students. They’re made of people that have multiple intersecting things happening at once.

And the pandemic really brought the humanity, I think, of everyone to light, at least for a moment before some of the culture wars sort of Ensconced and enwrapped things where it was hard to have these kind of conversations.

And my hope with this book is that it takes some of us back now that we’re moving to another phase of where wherever we’re at, we can now use this book as a means to reflect on what happened and how can we meet that vision of moving forward with a humanistic version of education that incorporates all of a person rather than just a slice of that person.

Mickey: So that’s an interesting a really interesting angle, particularly given, you know, you and I go back quite a ways. At the college that we teach at, and we, we actually first met on a curriculum committee that we called the pedagogy committee. And so we were riffing around on the neoliberalization and privatization of education, the corporatization of it the, the Orwellian sort of new speak language of education that was really, is clearly heading in, in a direction that was away from the idea of the Dewey esque idea of the, of the classroom as a.

As a laboratory for social problems, really like a place to really practice democracy and, and be a, have meaningfully participate in discourse debate and so on. And what we’ve seen, you know, in this past definitely the last 10 years, but exacerbated extraordinarily by the pandemic. We’ve seen the real impacts of neoliberalism on, on schools, public schools in particular, which you know, have been starved.

Mostly on purpose in terms of budgets, but also in terms of the way that they’re run increasingly like top-down corporations and bloated with heavy management and administrative staff. And. What we’ve seen is that teachers now are basically on the front lines. It’s like a triage center. The school is so, is so much more, it’s, it’s not even about going and learning about a topic.

It’s, it’s basically the schools are now supposed to do everything that the rest of society has been failing to do from mental health and healthcare. Of course, of course teaching, but there’s so many other elements now in, in education and you really capture that in going remote. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Adam: Yeah, I, I can, there was a lot of things you said there, you, you mentioned Dewey, and I think of for myself, Paulo Freire who is a philosopher of humanistic education where the goal of education is to develop and grow and not to be treated as a product. And the system that we’re in already is very much built along a factory model where, Where you know, the students and teachers are both objects that are acted upon as opposed to subjects that are acting.

And so this is a long-standing trend, as you mentioned in education, which then the pandemic served to accelerate, where now we have more of, instead of a factory model, a sort of corporate model where the student is sort of a customer. And so the teacher then is like customer service. The big thing though, to like put this into more concrete language that I think is the most important is all of this is putting the big decisions.

Further outside of the context of the people in the classroom and in the space. So the term going remote as you read it, you’ll see it has many different iterations of what that means. It’s not just about being remote from the classroom, it can be emotionally remote. It could be about, again, the idea that Silicon Valley corporations who are quite remote from the classroom are exerting profound power.

Now within the classroom. It has to do with state and other mandates that are imposing. Things on the classroom where there’s not democratic input and so. I think that this book going remote is, is really a book that’s making us rethink the, to me, I’m trying to get the (unintelligible) metaphors or vision of education and at this point we have a very mechanistic way of looking at education, which again, Is a very long tradition.

It’s not new, but it’s been accelerated now that the tools are much more advanced and it’s been accelerated also by, as you said, the sort of managerial class that’s coming from an MBA P O V in. Really, we’re at like a choice point again where how can we use this moment where we’re all. You know, have experienced this great traumatic disruption, and how do we create a new metaphor?

So for me, I would like us to move out of this sort of factory customer metaphor and moving us more towards metaphors of journey or a family of connection. So, for example California schools are funded based on enrollment and based on quote unquote success rates. So, How is success defined? Well, it’s success is defined by the pass rates of students.

If students have poor mental health, that doesn’t factor into the funding. If the teachers are getting burned out, that doesn’t factor in. So this is a very narrow idea of what a successful community college is. And in fact, being a good community is not part of those metrics. And so I think for me, It’s us sitting down and using this crisis moment just as many Silicon Valley corporations.

So this is a great moment for us to have more share in the classroom. You know, you have Class Dojo, you’ve got Canvas, zoom that we’re talking on here right now. All of these are like, this is a moment we can insert ourselves more as sort of middle people between the student and the teacher. I think it’s also a moment that we can seize upon to say, how do we as the people that are not remote, that are in that space together?

With each other to together be empowered to develop educative spaces that fit that Dewey-ian and model that we’re, we’re not just training people to work. That’s part of what we’re doing, but this is part of a community democratic process. So how do we together resist this trend that again, has been decades in the making and try to turn back the time.

Mickey: I like how you’re

talking about this being an opportunity for teachers and students to really have step into this recenter itself in terms of educational institutions, because that’s what we’ve seen more getting pushed out or, or teachers and teachers were kind of like scapegoats and, and students were, where they’re always talked about.

But we do, do these speak. Are are we talking to them or are we listening to them and are they showing up and. If they’re not showing up, why? Why is that? And you talk about this in the book, and it’s, again, it’s, it does have a dystopian you know, kind of quality to it. It’s no surprise that you teach about dystopian literature and you teach courses on comics and other things.

You know, Adam, there’s a lot more that we need to talk about, but we need to take a quick musical break. I’m Mickey Huff, host of the Project Censored Show. We’re speaking with Professor Adam Bessie. We’re talking about. His new book Going Remote, A Teacher’s Journey that was illustrated by Pete Laning.

And we’re gonna talk about Pete too after the break. So stay tuned.

Welcome back to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today in this segment, I’m honored to welcome Adam Bessie, a professor of English at community college in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He is author of the new book Going Remote, A Teacher’s Journey. It is a graphic journalism book and part memoir illustrated. By the lovely Peter Glanting and Pete is a UX designer and cartoonist. He has a BA in English from the University of California Davis. He has an MFA in comics from the California College of the Arts.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with Pete on a number of other projects, and of course, Pete has been working with you for some time. We’re gonna come back to some of that conversation about teacher-centered, student-centered education. Talk about, about some of the things you might see as solutions or paths forward.

But before we get to some of that, let’s talk about the process. Let’s talk about you. Working with Pete last year, I had you and Pete on here. You all recently did a great reading at Avid reader books in Sacramento when you and Pete were there, and it’s really powerful. I know this is radio, so it’s all about voices, but it’s really powerful when you’re giving the presentations and you’re seeing it. Pete does an extraordinary job of rendering your story. Can you talk about that?

Adam: Yeah, big prompts to Pete Peter, who I’ve worked with on a number of projects and then we’ve really gone all in on going remote. And I just wanna make a note that if you wanna see our live show and it is a show, we’re gonna read it visually and talk about it and riff and q and a.

I’ll be at Books Inc in Berkeley on the 7th of June at 6:00 PM and then in Marin in court, Madera book Passage on Saturday, June 24th at 11. Am. And so if you can make it to those, you’ll get to see Pete’s Art and we’ll talk about it. So back to Pete. This is an unusual book because it’s memoir and journalism and it’s memoir of my life, but it’s drawn by Peter Glanting.

So it’s a kind of a collaborative memoir, which is an odd process. A lot of the, the famous graphic memoirs like Mouse by Art Spiegelman. Or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which if you haven’t read those. Buy those first before you get my book. Those are one person doing the writing and drawing, and that’s typically been how autobiographical comics have worked.

Usually comics are done in teams by like superhero comics, but it’s been a really powerful process where Pete and I. Work sort of like a band where I, I had the story, I’ve done the experiencing and I worked through the script. And then we’ll be on a Zoom ironically, cause Pete’s in Portland where I’m at right now.

And, but I’ll be in the Bay Area, he’s in Portland, he’s on Zoom, I’m on Zoom. I’m reading the script with him. We’re doing like a read through, he’ll like doodle some things and then I’ll look at it and we’ll talk about it and then he gives me some notes cause usually I write way too much. And then we edit it down and we go kind of back and forth.

Until our little two person band like hits that harmony where the pictures and the words really meld together. We hope seamlessly have that real impact that we want to have where people are thinking about the issues in public education and in healthcare and in other areas. And we think comics are just a, a fantastic medium to deal with such poignant topics.

Mickey: I think Adam, you, that’s absolutely right. And this has an accessibility level that in my view, really goes above and beyond. No I’m not dissing you know, books with words. We write those too. And this of course has words, but this art form is, is really extraordinary. And you are a professor that teaches about comics.

Could you could you talk just a little bit about that for our listeners? Just about. Just, and I know that this is, this is stuff that you and I clearly know and I’m assuming many of our listeners might know, but, but some people still have this stigma around the idea of comics, right? And this idea that there’s something just, I don’t know, not up to some standard or something, and that’s I think that’s a very shortsighted view.

Can you talk about that?

Adam: Yeah, definitely. When I first. Proposed the graphic novels literature course with one of my colleagues back in God, 2010. I remember it got pushed back by the curriculum committee as not being rigorous enough, and these were people that don’t really know the power of comics.

As a roundabout way of getting to this, comics are, are, have been, you know, called out as a very dangerous art form. So if you go back to the early fifties, there was a, you know, the McCarthy era and. Comic books got caught up in the McCarthy era as part of the the, I believe, the committee on juvenile delinquency.

And so because comics are such a powerful art form that is so accessible and can transmit ideas so powerfully, that at that particular point in time, the comic book industry fearing its censorship by the government, which was going to be a real process, adopted something called the, you know, comics code, where they essentially self-censored, turning comics into the form many of us are clear with are used to now, or it’s superheroes or Archie, or sort of forms that are banal and not really art. Fast forward to present. Comics are like any other medium. You can have childish novels and you can have Nobel Prize winning novels. You can have, you know, films created by AI coming soon.

Or you can have masterpieces, you can have comics about superheroes, and you can, and also have comics about. Brain cancer in public schools, anything you can do in any other medium you can do in comics, and every medium has its advantages and disadvantages. And comics is particularly good at rendering the invisible visible.

So it’s really good for dealing with abstractions. So a lot of the issues in the book related to public education are built on theories and concepts that if it were solely in writing, The number of people wanting to read it would be pretty limited. But when you’re able to put it in a comics form where you can visualize some of these concepts, they become more concrete and therefore more people can really join the conversation.

And that’s why I think comics are a really powerful anti-censorship tool, which is why when you look at the most banned books, What’s on the top there? Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of comics. There are a lot of comics because they’re an accessible way to transmit ideas.

Mickey: Yeah. And as a result they do get a lot of attention.

Sometimes it’s not positive attention, as you just illustrated. Some of the most frequently challenged or banned books are in this very medium in this format. And it, in fact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention you’re actually , on part of your book tour now in Portland, gonna be speaking at Powell’s, but you’re in the land of.

The comic book, legal Defense Fund, right? An important organization that has legally supported expression through comics. And again, there’s plenty of expression going on here, Adam, Bessie. And again, I think, you know, when we read works, whether you mentioned Friere or Henry (unintelligible), you know, really long, detailed academic books that, that are philosophy about education and pedagogy.

What’s fascinating to me is that you do so much of that ingoing remote, but it, but you tell the story very different differently. You do tell it with pictures. You tell it, and, and, and the prose is again, almost poetic in, in some ways. And it’s, it’s, I suppose the medium contributes to that because it has to be poignant, shorter maybe more to the point as it were.

But I mean, I think you capture so many of the things going on in higher education and just in, in general in our world right now as we were emerging from this pandemic, you mentioned the centering of, of human beings. Right. And I wanted to come and come back to that, and I wanted to come back when the few minutes we had left to talk about how you see us moving out of this pandemic as human beings, but also.

As educators, right? Of course there’s fathers and partners and all these things, but there’s also educators. Artists. Where do you see going Remote was the title of the book, where are we going next?

Adam: Yeah. It’s interesting cause I finished this book in. 2020, the end of 2021, early 2022. And so as you read it, you’ll see it maybe ends on a cliffhanger, an authentic one where I really don’t know what’s gonna happen.

And now that I’ve been back physically in the classroom for a little while I’m seeing, you know, some of these same trend lines I mentioned at the start of this interview, this tension between the sort of remoteness and the community. So I’ve been doing face-to-face teaching, hybrid teaching, online teaching all at once, and I’m seeing a lot of students are really craving community.

They really are missing and craving it and, and wanting that, and they do experience the community. Through technology and physically. And so when I’m looking forward, what I wanna see most is for us to think inventively for how to make colleges real community spaces. And that community is kind of foremost in that process in order for us to do that.

Number one, we need to be reducing class sizes all over because another thing that’s emerged from the pandemic is we see a mental health crisis. The data shows that I mentioned that in the book, but it is persistent. And if we’re gonna really be working with students using technology, connecting them to services and doing all the things we need to do to fulfill this democratic and humanistic vision, we need to have.

Less students per class and we need to have more things on campus for them to engage and for them to create things. So I’ll end on this note. On an exciting note. I just finished the semester and because of chat G P T, which is another conversation, I said I’m gonna make my final project a multimedia project that can’t be chat gpt that I know of.

And what was so great is each of them drew from their own personal experience. I got a video about the working conditions at Starbucks. Another student did a documentary on being a Tahitian dancer. Another student did a comic about being transgender. On and on and on where the students were really drawing from their life and using the media tools.

They have to, as you’ve said before, I forget who it comes from to be the media. Yes. And so this is exciting for me, is that I see this next phase as this fight really to make sure that we have smaller class sizes, we can create more community, and that students are using these tools of technology rather than being tools of the technology.

Mickey: Indeed and Adam Bessie be the media going back to Jello Biafra punk Days of the Dead Kennedys, and also also a a great book on media activism by David Matheson. But nevertheless it seems like that, that you sound like you’re having hope too for where we’re heading in the future.

And you, you see that the yearning for community as a real potential boon. And maybe that’ll also maybe that in classes like this works like this. We’ll help attract you know, another generation of people, you know, to come back to college.

Adam: I hope so, because I do think I, I have that utopian note.

I’m gonna end on the kind of choice. I think that, that the his, that community college and public education is in a real existential crisis and a real crisis for its own existence. Right now as a result of technological changes, as a result of demographic changes. And so this book, my hope is it creates lots of conversation that we can together as people that are part of the actual community and not remote from it to together be that change, be the media, whatever it is to make that vision happen.

Mickey: Adam, Bessie.

I think that there’s a real authentic message here in the book going remote a teacher’s journey. You are the author Peter Glanting did the wonderful illustrations. You can check it out online at Penguin Random House. You can find out more@adambessie.com. And a reminder, Adam Bessie will be at Books Inc in Berkeley, June 7th, 6:00 PM Pete Laning will be with you?

Adam: He will not, he’ll be at the book passage event, I believe. . So we’ll be streaming that. And that’s on June 24th at 11:00 AM

Mickey: Okay, fantastic. You can again learn more@adambessie.com. And Adam, it is always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk about your new book Going Remote A Teacher’s Journey.

Adam: Thanks, Mickey. Bye everybody.