Freedom to teach: implications of the removal of Persepolis from Chicago schools

In March 2013, the school district authority in Chicago instructed schools to remove the well-respected graphic novel Persepolis from classrooms. I’ve recently had an article published reflecting on the implications of this incident for teachers’ and students’ freedom to teach and to read.

Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It was first published (in French) in 2003 and depicts her childhood and early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. It has been translated into over 40 languages and won numerous awards. It has long been the subject of controversy in Iran, but the reaction in Chicago was unexpected; Persepolis had previous been a recommended text in district curriculum guides. It’s difficult to be sure about the reasons behind Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) decision, but it appears it was prompted by this page showing what the young Marji imagines when she hears her uncle has been tortured. A host of free speech organisations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, American Library Association and the American Booksellers’ Foundation for Free Expression attacked the directive to remove Persepolis from libraries and classrooms and teachers and students protested. This led to a degree of backtracking, but CPS remained insistent the book be banned from 7th grade classrooms until they had developed professional development guidelines for teachers ‘so the content of this book can be accessed’ by students.

I found this episode highly worrying. In the article, I discuss comics in relation to reader response theories, arguing that meaning does not reside in the text itself, but is created through the interaction of reader, image and text. Each reader’s interpretation is therefore unique and there is no single ‘correct’ way to access the content. As a medium, comics are particularly open to different interpretations due to the way in which they use more than one code system (words and images); the use of gutters between frames and so forth. Previous research I conducted with librarians suggested that, when adults decide to make a book unavailable to young people, they frequently do so based on an assumption that young people will interpret a text in the same way as they have. Many young people have a much more sophisticated view, however! For example, in a focus group I ran about controversial novels, one teenager commented: “You bring your own existing ideas…when you read the book, so people can read it differently”. The group felt that younger children would be likely to construct less graphic images than an older teenager when they read the same book.

In the same research, young people also said they valued opportunities to discuss controversial books and to discuss the issues raised. Removing Persepolis from classrooms denies young people not only with an opportunity to read the book, but also to discuss its implications. As I argue in the article, adults with the power to deny young people access to books have a duty to ensure they possess a thorough understanding of all types of young people’s literature. Sadly, from the controversy in Chicago as well as many more less high profile incidents I’ve come across, it seems this is often not the case.

Sarah McNicol

Thinking with ‘White Dee’: The Gender Politics of ‘Austerity Porn’

ESRI’s Kim Allen, working with Imogen Tyler (Lancaster University) and Sara De Benedictis (King’s College London), has just had Thinking with ‘White Dee’: The Gender Politics of “Austerity Porn”’ published in Sociological Research Online.

The paper’s abstract is:

“Focusing on Benefits Street, and specifically the figure of White Dee, this rapid response article offers a feminist analysis of the relationship between media portrayals of people living with poverty and the gender politics of austerity. To do this we locate and unpick the paradoxical desires coalescing in the making and remaking of the figure of ‘White Dee’ in the public sphere. We detail how Benefits Street operates through forms of classed and gendered shaming to generate public consent for the government’s welfare reform. However, we also examine how White Dee functions as a potential object of desire and figure of feminist resistance to the transformations in self and communities engendered by neoliberal social and economic policies. In this way, we argue that these public struggles over White Dee open up spaces for urgent feminist sociological enquiries into the gender politics of care, labour and social reproduction.”

For those of you who don’t know who ‘White Dee’ is, this is the way Channel 4 portray her:

The full reference is: Allen, K. Tyler, I. and De Benedictis, S. (2014).Thinking with ‘White Dee’: The Gender Politics of “Austerity Porn”’. Sociological Research Online. 19 (3), 2. 

This paper feeds into an event that’s part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science that Kim is co-hosting, with the Social Action & Research Foundation, called Does ‘Poverty Porn’ undermine the Welfare State? to be held at Z-Arts on 6th November.


Event: Does ‘Poverty Porn’ undermine the Welfare State?

On the 6th November, ESRI’s Dr. Kim Allen and  the Social Action & Research Foundation (SARF) will co-host an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual ‘Festival of Social Sciences’. Entitled Does ‘Poverty Porn’ undermine the Welfare State?  this event will focus on the relationship between welfare policy, public attitudes and media representations of poverty. It will be informed by recent debates about so-called ‘poverty porn’ (such as Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’), which has been referenced by coalition politicians as evidence for the need for welfare reform. These programmes have raised questions about the impact of stigmatising media portrayals of poverty on government policy and public attitudes towards welfare. This public event will provide an opportunity to bring together leading academics, policy makers, journalists and people from the wider community to debate these issues. The event builds on a recent collection of articles published in ‘Sociological Research online’ on representations of the poor and the politics of welfare reform, including a co-authored article by Kim Allen on the gender politics of austerity (

Location: Z-Arts, 335 Stretford Road, Hulme, Manchester, M15 5ZA
Date: 6 November 2014, 17.00-20.00
More details to follow.


Near Future School

Sarah McNicol and I are working on a new project, the Near Future School. We’ve submitted a bid to the CCN+ seed fund but in the spirit of early career bootstrapping we’ve found a school willing to let us develop the project funded or unfunded.

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Our first Near Future School outing was at a school in Manchester. We wanted to conduct a rough and ready pilot of using a participatory design fiction method with year eight pupils. And we were blown away by what they came up with.

The instructions were (it was more participatory than this…):

We want you to get into pairs to write a short story. The story will be set in 2018, what it’s like to go to this school in 2018, but we want you to focus on what it’s like to be a pupil, to think about what it feels like, what does and doesn’t work for you and your friends. We want you to think about what it would be like to be new to this school, and maybe not speak English. What it would be like to be bored or bullied? What it would be like to be good at your work and get recognition for it? What would it be like to break your leg and have to work from home?

Obviously we can’t know what these things will be like because 2018 hasn’t happened yet, it’s in the future. It’s an important date for you though because in 2018 you will be 16 and taking your GCSEs. So you want the school to be right for you to do well in your exams to take you where you want to go in life.

Usually when we want to know what something is like we do research. We are educational researchers and this is what we do. There are however similarities between research and creative writing [it was a creative writing class]. To be good at both you need to be curious about people, about places and how things work. There are differences, in creative writing you can just write away with your imagination for a guide but in research you usually have to go and talk to people… today we’re going to write design fictions to mix the two, use fiction as research.

Design fictions are a bit like science fiction and they are a bit like science fact. You write about the near future to think what that might be like but also what the present is like also. A fundamental idea of design fiction is that the future will be like the present, things will and won’t work, people will be average and not know how to do things, there will be mess and Internet connection issues or the equivalent. This clip from Minority Report demonstrates what the future will be like, we’ll have transparent computers adn TV-like adverts on cereal boxes but the technology will annoy us. (Appropriately at this time the clip wouldn’t play.)

The design fictions they produced: 

It’s important to recognise that we had a short time to work with the pupils, an hour and that what they did was a work in progress. There were three groups:

The first group explored a dark scenario where a girl became increasingly isolated and lonely by technology, unable to find genuine human-to-human social contact, to be loved. She campaigned against all technology but failed. She became desperately ill from an unknown illness and became the poster girl for a campaign to save her from the condition but in this she was further isolated and alienated by the social media campaigns. Finally, she died cursing technology with her last breath.

The pair mapped out the story on a whiteboard:

They produced this text:

Technology has moved forward. Society’s going back. More and more kids go back home to a house without. That’s me. That’s the life of Sam. I walk to school everyday, backpack inside, tablet inside. Cars hovering in the air. Everyone’s life is pre-occupied, taken over by a little mechanism.

My head down shoulders hunched, wandering to my favourite place. A place where I escape the fake intoxicating aroma of this world.

The second group wrote a story that took place two years after the end of gender was achieved. I love the way the finger scanners won’t work unless your fingers are pristine clean.

My alarm vibrated to the point of shaking apart – Apple doesn’t lie about the quality of their products – shocking me into almost falling from the air-pressure bed and onto the plexiglass floor. I put my clothes on, the bleak, government issued uniform that had a tie that itched my neck.

I brought my steam-scooter out of the hall’s steaming sector and stuck my gender pride sticker on the bumper, the adhesive only coming off when exposed to plastic particles. Today was the 2year anniversary of the Gender Different Association (GDA) winning their case on taking ‘gender cases’ seriously, also promoting that we all accept each other for our mental capacity, not biological role or looks. I, being gender neutral, and inexplicably proud of the movement and want it to be recognised.

I put my gloves on they kept my fingers clean since the god-damn finger print scanner is so faulty! Seriously! It only accepted ‘perfectly’ pristine fingers that had no water, crisps, mud or anything associated with it.

I arrive at the school buildings, domes and bridges scattered around the shiny, clean campus. Litter anything and you’ll get fined. Since I’m 16 and was doing my GCFE’s (the new test the government regulated for this year), I had to go to the underground study and exam area for optimal learning.

The third group talked a lot more than they wrote but the discussion was fascinating and wide ranging. What they wrote was kind of a manifesto for doomed youth:

Four years later, the building is bigger, the more children, the more over-populated everywhere becomes, rooms need to be bigger, hardly any outdoor space. Fighting, scricking (sp?), girls kicking off, the devil is possessing their minds. Depression, obsession, compulsive aggression. Everybody craves to be loved by someone. Break ups and make ups, it all swirls around us. We are puppets being controlled. Four years later, we are the lost generation. Four years later, everything has fallen, we are broken and we can’t. Be. Fixed…

Strong stuff indeed.

James Duggan