Lifting the Lid on the Coffin: An Examination of Attitudes Towards Vampires in Popular Culture

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by Jessica Garland
WRIT 1733: Examining Monstrosity Through the Lens of Media Ecology Theory | Professor Kara Taczak

Vampires have pervaded popular culture across a wide range of media for centuries and continue to remain relevant, their popularity and appeal seemingly peaking with the recent Twilight novels and movies. Historical examinations of vampires reveal a significant change in society’s perception of them. Only recently in media have vampires occupied celebrated positions such as the emotionally supportive ally, the engaging love interest, and even the noble hero. Original vampire myths depicted the undead as repulsive, abhorrent, unholy creatures of the night. The stark difference between earlier “monstrous demon” imagery and the emotionally fraught protagonists that populate culture today reflects a dynamic evolution within our society. This essay investigates society’s evolving response to vampires, attempting to explain the two distinct stages of vampire portrayals and to explore the possibility of a newly developing third stage.

The first stage of society’s response to vampires can best be described in one word: fear. Originally, people believed that a messy death—such as deaths related to suicide, birth defects, and plagues—would result in a messy afterlife (Atwater 72). Cheryl Atwater, in her anthropological study of vampire evolution, examines how vampires were originally considered to be hideous, soulless, unholy, animalistic predators because they were manifestations of society’s fears of the ugly, the unnatural, the dangerous, and the abnormal (72). In extremely religious historical time periods, rejection of God or religious tradition constituted a catastrophe frightening enough to turn people into vampires. Hence, people believed that even the death of an atheist or a funeral performed without a priest could create a vampire (Atwater 72). Tracy Betsinger and Amy B. Scott, in their analysis of early vampire lore, notes how people believed that “those who were ‘great sinners’, the ‘god-less’, which included those of different, non-Christian faiths, and those who practised [sic] witchcraft were all considered risks for becoming vampires” (473). Religious fears attached to vampires spawned the concept that vampires were devoid of souls. In these deeply religious eras, soulless entities automatically represented pure evil. Thus, the vampire was treated as a purely evil or demonic entity.

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serpeblu |

The fear connected with soullessness manifested in a number of superstitions, including that vampires were unable “to see [their] own image in a mirror” (Hall 361). On top of creating superstitions linked with soullessness, fear of the vampire led to particular burial practices. Burial rituals in historically pagan and Christian regions, which emphasized the importance of the soul, were designed to prevent the rise of potential vampires by appeasing deceased people who might have turbulent afterlives, thus warding the dead from potential demonic invaders and “barricad[ing] the dead so they are unable to return” (Betsinger and Scott 470). Fear of vampires also resulted in an increase of strength within the Christian Church, as people gradually equated demons with vampires and thus relied more heavily on the Church for protection (Betsinger and Scott 474).

During this first stage of responding to the vampire with fear, vampires evolved to match society’s evolving fears. In times when society worried about extravagance, for instance, the terrifying vampire evolved to embody these fears by possessing excessive wealth. Similarly, in time periods concerned with promiscuous women, the wives of Dracula were often depicted as physically attractive yet repulsive to the human protagonist. In such narratives, as Carol Senf notes, “the voluptuous woman [was] transformed into a carnivorous animal” (41). Vampires characterized by their seductive and dangerously attractive features were categorized alongside vampires as animated rotting corpses since both were received by society with fear, suspicion, and caution.

The second stage of society’s response to vampires is vastly different from the first stage, in that society began to welcome the vampire as a fellow victim. Morgan Jackson expertly summarizes the second stage as populated by entities who “transitioned from mindless, soulless, and monstrous creatures into creatures possessing a conscience and having the ability to make choices between good and evil” (para. 30).  As the vampire’s struggle became internalized, the vampire narrative evolved to follow the emotional conflict and tragedy of the vampire. Most famously perhaps, this internal struggle manifested itself within the vampire’s need to drink blood in order to stay alive, despite how the vampire often despised killing. Angela Tenga jokes that the “troubled conscience” of a second-stage vampire weakens its monstrosity to such a point that the modern vampire “is more a superhero with special powers” than a monster (77). Due to the “advent of sympathetic vampires” and their depiction as tragic victims and noble sufferers, vampires were no longer depicted only as villains, according to Tenga, because now the monster was a victim of its own monstrosity (78).

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Stefano Cavoretto |

Anne Rice’s series The Vampire Chronicles is considered the turning point in vampire literature and the beginning of second-stage vampires, as one of her protagonists is praised as the first “sympathetic” vampire, specifically in Interview with the Vampire. The protagonist of Interview with the Vampire is one of the first vampires to intentionally struggle to stay human despite his nature because he “detests what it means to be a vampire” (Jackson). As the vampire is treated with increasing sympathy, the vampire hunters are “on the run for their lives, outed publically, and hated for their destiny of slaying demons” (J. Meyer 29). This new and complicated relationship between the vampire and its surroundings is also evident in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a vampire is the love interest of a vampire hunter, and in the novel I Am Legend, in which the last man on earth realizes “that in fact it is he, the last specimen of humankind, who is the real monster” and the vampires are his victims (Smetana 175).

However, it’s important to note that vampires today are still characterized as
villains. Loathing for overly romantic vampires surfaced at the same time that Stephenie Meyer’s book series Twilight reached incredibly high levels of popularity amid widespread complaints that vampires had become too “soft” or “wimpy.” That’s not to say society is cycling back towards fearing vampires, but it seems to be growing bored with the emotionally tortured vampire of the second stage. I believe this marks a new, third stage in our cultural response to the vampire. If the first two stages were opposites of each other, then this third stage, if it exists, most likely represents a compromise of fear and attraction—in essence, the ultimate monster. Yet, before a third stage can be identified, public perception of vampires must be measured.

To explore how society’s reaction to vampires has changed, society’s current reception of the vampire must be gauged. I used a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods in order to reduce the possibility that the medium of my research (i.e., a survey, an interview, etc.) would significantly influence the data towards a particular conclusion. This combination entailed a survey completed by fifty people across a range of ages, interviews with two professionals in the field of psychology, and observations of four students’ responses to vampire movies. The survey and observations were conducted to examine participants’ reactions to the entity of the vampire in media. The interviews were conducted to investigate possible explanations for society’s various reactions to vampires.

The survey was created online and distributed through Facebook and email so that, through ease of accessibility, it could reach a wide demographic. Fifty respondents, ranging from fourteen to seventy years of age, participated in the survey in order to document a wide range of generations and their responses to portrayals of the vampire. Though potential respondents were randomly selected, considerably more females participated than males (approximately 81% of the survey was answered by females and 17% by males) and the majority of respondents were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine (58% of survey respondents).

The survey asked a range of questions so as to obtain a well-rounded picture of each respondent’s perspective. The styles and types of questions included demographic questions (specifically age and gender identity), questions rating levels of interest in traits of the vampire, questions pertaining to respondents’ favored depictions of vampires in film and television, and open-ended questions about interpretations of the vampire. An example of an open-ended question from the survey is “What is your favorite interpretation of a vampire and why?” Answers to open-ended questions about level of interest in vampire traits (such as attractiveness, emotional torment, predatory prowess, etc.) were sorted into various categories such as “positive second stage,” “negative second stage,” “positive first stage,” and “negative first stage” to delineate the relationship between first- and second-stage vampire reception. Though the distinctions between categories seem vague, a standard was implemented to consistently code open responses. For example, responses to open questions that only expressed dissatisfaction with the second stage were grouped into the “negative second stage” category, whereas responses that expressed dissatisfaction with second-stage vampires and satisfaction with first-stage vampires were grouped into both “negative second stage” and “positive first stage” categories.

As for the observations, I recorded the reactions of four individual volunteers during a seven-hour vampire movie marathon of three movies. The three movies—Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Fright Night (2011)—were selected for their unique portrayal of vampires and their relationships with human characters. The respondents shared different levels of familiarity with the films. Observations were conducted in the Projector Room in the Centennial Towers Residence Hall and a dorm room in the Centennial Halls Residence Hall, both of which are located on the University of Denver campus. Four University of Denver students, three women and one man (ranging from eighteen to twenty years of age), participated by reacting to the films they saw and reflecting aloud on the movies. This age demographic was chosen because the participants would have been raised during the second stage, but aware of the first stage; a younger demographic might have been less familiar with the first stage, and an older demographic might have been less immersed in the second stage. The four participants’ verbal, physical, and behavioral responses, as well as comments, were recorded on paper during the movie viewing event and during an informal interview, twenty minutes after the last movie was finished, to better capture responses to the vampire movies as they viewed them and after they’d had time to be affected. Though the observed individuals may have acted differently than normal because they were aware of being observed for a study, their actions seemed authentic and their opinions seemed genuine.

Two interviews conducted with professionals in the field of clinical psychology were also performed to ascertain possible explanations for the shift between stages one and two of society’s response to vampires. The two interviewees were females with doctorates in clinical psychology, Interviewee A specializing in mental illness and Interviewee B specializing in social relationships. One interview was conducted by telephone, lasting twenty-seven minutes, and the other through email. Interview questions were open-ended and centered on potential social and psychological factors that might reinforce or inhibit change in cultural response to “others” or “entities [society] believe are threateningly different than themselves.”

In the survey, the top three rated television shows were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and Vampire Diaries. The top two rated movies were Interview with the Vampire and The Twilight Saga, with twenty and eighteen respondent votes respectively; Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter tied for third place with fifteen votes. Shortly after the movie viewing, during an informal interview, the respondents each stated that Interview with the Vampire was their favorite movie of those that they saw, with Fright Night entertaining them as a “guilty pleasure.” It should be noted that respondents who had not read the original Dracula novel liked the Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie overall more than respondents who had read the original source material, yet none of the participants said that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was their favorite film during the movie viewing. During the interviews, both interviewees remarked that the increase of scientific knowledge within our culture likely played a significant role in the transition between the first and second stages, in that it combatted the superstitions that fueled the first-stage reactions.

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The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek |

The primary research suggests that a third stage of vampire reception might indeed exist, as the survey and observations reveal clear yet contradictory trends; both the first and second stages remain influential and prevalent despite their seemingly exclusive nature. During the movie viewing, a few participants remarked that part of why they didn’t enjoy Bram Stoker’s Dracula was because of the movie’s interpretation of Abraham Van Helsing. In the original novel Dracula, Van Helsing is an eccentric but reliable professor enlisted to save Lucy from her mysterious illness. Van Helsing eventually identifies that her sickness is associated with vampires, and he goes on to help the main characters of the book defeat Dracula. On the other hand, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in addition to portraying Dracula as a victim cursed by love and passion beyond his control, depicts Van Helsing as a less likeable character than in the book, with exaggerated eccentric behavior; he cackles, makes insensitive remarks about Lucy’s death, and even seemingly teleports in one scene. This second-stage adaptation of a first-stage book altered the characters so that Dracula becomes a noble and tragic character while Van Helsing becomes the erratic and violent entity. Jenna Meyer, whose thesis is on the evolution of the vampire, would most likely consider this a realistic symptom of movies that emphasize the sympathetic vampire, inherent to the second stage, because she remarks that “vampires have gained society’s sympathy, meaning the slayers are on the run for their lives, outed publicly, and hated for their destiny of slaying demons” (29). In a second-stage movie viewed during the historical second stage, the vampire and vampire hunter are at odds, often forcing the audience to align themselves with one side or the other; the audience members inevitably identify with the sympathetic vampire over the cruel hunter. The mediocre reception Bram Stoker’s Dracula garnered at the movie viewing, especially in light of the fact that the movie received impressive reviews in the past, could imply that society is beginning to drift away from the second stage and into a new, third stage.

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Brayan Esteban Esparza Gonzalez |

The responses to Twilight within the survey also reinforce the concept that society is growing progressively bored with the romantic vampire. Twenty-five respondents answered the question “What is your least favorite interpretation of a vampire and why?” with references to Twilight and the fact that the vampires were, in their opinions, too romanticized or tame. Respondent 30 remarked hating the vampires from Twilight because they were too “watered down”: “They were almost too human. They lost a lot of the primal characteristics that vampires normally possess, in a sense castrating their vampireness.” It should be noted that Twilight, despite its pervasive presence in pop culture, was excluded from the movie viewing event because several of the respondents absolutely refused to watch it, protesting that they’d leave the room for the duration of the movie if it were played against their request. The intense rejection of the Twilight series and the vehement criticism of the fact that Edward Cullen “defeats the purpose of a vampire, [because] he can go into the sun and sparkles which defeats the limitation on vampires’ strength” (Respondent 10) especially indicates that society is, at least partly, losing its fascination with the romanticized and very human-like vampire.

However, the decomposition of the second stage does not necessarily imply a resurrection of the first stage. The data hints at the emergence of a third stage, instead of a repetition of the first stage of fear, because the “romantic connotation” associated with the vampire is still popular (Atwater 77). In both the movie viewing and the survey, Interview with the Vampire received the most praise. Participants at the movie viewing all agreed that it was their favorite movie of the three shown and continued to quote the movie after it had finished, even miming scenes they found entertaining. In the survey, Interview with the Vampire was the most consistently picked movie when respondents were tasked with picking their three favorite vampire movies. This movie, celebrated as the initial movie (and book series) and epitome of the second stage, evidently still resonates with its audiences. The sheer popularity of this movie, in both the survey and observations, seems to signal that the second stage has not lost its potency.

The relevance of the second stage to society’s current perspective on vampires can also be potentially extracted from the responses to the 2011 remake of the movie Fright Night, a first-stage narrative in a second-stage time period. The main vampire does very little to hide his identity, and the audience receives nearly immediate confirmation that the protagonist is not only bloodthirsty but also predatory and remorseless. Just like the first-stage vampires before him, Jerry, the vampiric antagonist of Fright Night, is not a creature to be reasoned or sympathized with; he is a dangerous enemy to be killed for the good of the community. Participants laughed aloud several times and quoted funny lines after the movie had ended, as Fright Night had produced enough humor to generally entertain its audience. Yet, participants also emphasized that the movie was a “guilty pleasure” rather than an objectively enjoyable film. When respondents were tasked with choosing their three favorite vampire movies, the 2011 adaptation of Fright Night ranked 15th, which is considerably low as there were only eighteen positions. This data suggests that Fright Night’s close parallels to first-stage themes and absence of second-stage elements ultimately harmed its popularity. When the support and appreciation for Interview with the Vampire is paired with the mediocre and underwhelming response to Fright Night, the data suggests that the second stage is far from dead. Indeed, despite the complaints that Bram Stoker’s Dracula changed the characters to fit second-stage roles (Participant H looked confused as she stated, “I don’t understand why they did that, trying to make him relatable.”), the movie still managed to tie with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for third place on the list of respondents’ three favorite vampire movies. Even Twilight, which was so vehemently rejected, came in second on that same list, reinforcing the idea the second stage is still quite prevalent.

This contradictory data is why I suggest that a third stage exists or is at least emerging. It seems that society wants both vampires to hug and vampires to kill. This appears evident in the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was ranked in first place on the list of respondents’ three favorite vampire television shows by a wide margin. In the show, some monsters are “creatures that must be destroyed or made into sexual fetishes” while other monsters are “potential ‘life’ partners and members of a community in which difference and the most extreme varieties of other-ness prove no barrier to companionship” (Poole 211). This interesting duality, a fundamental component of the potential third stage, is especially relevant to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series because the monsters shift between the two stages, with certain creatures seeking redemption after their acts of “legendary evil” and other relatable creatures lapsing into episodes of cruelty (Poole 211). In the survey, thirty-eight respondents ranked the series among their top three favorites, which is more than twice the number of the second closest competitors: True Blood and Vampire Dairies. All three of these shows combine relatable and sympathetic vampire hunters with vampires that are equally sympathetic and emotional, while also incorporating the evil, animalistic vampires. These shows, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer, signal our society’s rising desire for dynamic vampire/human relationships in popular media.

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Though awareness of the stages is important for cultural research, the reasons for the transitions between stages are especially significant. If the stages changed for completely arbitrary reasons, then the shifting reactions of society to vampires would contain no deeper meaning. According to two professionals in the field of psychology, the evolving knowledge of science and increased globalization contributes to and continues to shape our responses to monsters; the fact that two psychologists with differing backgrounds ultimately came to similar conclusions about the causes for such a transition reinforces the credibility of their conclusions. Both interviewees remarked that empathy is a powerful catalyst for acceptance, and empathy is best attained through direct interaction. Interviewee B, a clinical psychologist specializing in social relationships, noted that, of the “people who have a bias against LGBTQ people, the vast majority do not have a single personal relationship with a person who identifies as LGBTQ” and asserted that “exposure to the ‘other’…[and] positive interaction with the ‘other,’ ideally maintained over time…has a very strong effect on changing opinions.” This concept also implies snowball effect, in which increased interaction with a minority group or “other” leads to more sympathetic portrayals of the other, which would in turn encourage further interaction.

The diminishing fear of the other or monster through interaction and exposure may also be reinforced through expanding scientific knowledge. Interviewee A, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mental illnesses, suggested that the decreasing influence of superstitions directly contributes to the shift between the first and second stage:

Early on I think these perceptions were fear-based and also spawned from ignorance. There was also a lot more magical thinking in the past when huge groups of people were dying from plagues, etc. I think they were trying to make some sense of what they were experiencing. These days, I think people don’t take these beliefs seriously (as they once did), so there have been variations created for sheer entertainment.

The prevalence of scientific mindsets over mystical beliefs affects the culture as a whole in that, as Interviewee A later addressed, vampires aren’t the only monsters to receive a more sympathetic makeover; popular plays and movies, like Wicked and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, portray their monstrous protagonists as misunderstood, well-meaning, and likeable characters trying to overcome a society that rejects or attacks them (Interviewee A). When the fear of witches and aliens is diminished, narratives with such monsters begin “breaking down the socially constructed barriers between people” and come to resemble the second and third stages of reactions to vampires (Interviewee B).

According to Interviewee B, scientific knowledge also contributes directly to society’s evolving reactions towards the vampire because science has allowed humans to live for longer amounts of time. The second stage of vampires may have started because “baby boomers have created that youth culture to deny death” and vampires are symbols of the undead (Interviewee B). Sympathetic, suffering vampires may have been born from the complex cultural state that is an obsession with immortality combined with the fear of loneliness that accompanies outliving your loved ones. Science has granted increasingly long life expectancies, and cultural movements, such as social media, may have caused a fear of loneliness since they keep everyone connected 24/7. Thus, “more and more people are seeing their own lives in the context of social isolation and in the context of the fear of growing old alone” (Interviewee B). The vampire, as Interviewee B notes, has become the “ultimate metaphor for social isolation,” while “the symbol of sucking someone’s blood…can [be] read as a desperate cry for connection.” Because our culture simultaneously craves immortality and fears isolation, the vampire has become a sympathetic and tortured character. According to my research, the cultural forces that affected the transition from the first stage to the second stage may include the youth culture of society, advances in science, and increased empathy toward others through expanding globalization and interaction.

None of this data should be construed as conclusive. In addition to my own biases as a researcher, the sample size of fifty respondents, two interviewees, and four observation participants is much too small for any significant conclusions to be made about society’s reaction to the vampire. Along with expanding the sample size, further research should also incorporate more diverse demographics. There were an overwhelming number of females in each category of research (82% of survey respondents, 75% of observation participants, and 100% of interviewees) and though the survey targeted people from ages fourteen through seventy, 58% of survey respondents were ages eighteen to twenty-nine. In order for the survey to truly reflect the perceptions society as a whole, other gender and age demographics need better representation. It’s also important to remember that the primary research of the survey was conducted in a very limited period of time—fewer than four weeks. More time allotted to the primary research would likely produce more accurate and representative results, as the researcher could explore broader themes and investigate trends in greater depth. The researcher could conceivably ask more questions on the survey, target a more diverse and representative participant pool, include more movies in the viewing event, and interview more professionals in varying social and psychological fields.

With these potential limitations in mind, further research should be pursued. One extended research path might be to investigate small shifts within the two large stages, so as to better understand why, how, and when the first stage began its transition into the second stage. Another path of future research might be to link the progression of the response to vampires with widespread cultural movements, such as the trend of women’s increasing sexual freedom and its possible effects on sexuality within vampire narratives. Since an exploration and enhanced understanding of society’s reactions to its monsters are inherently a study of society and culture, further insight on this topic will ultimately contribute to a better understanding of society as a whole and the manner in which it operates. In essence, this research has pried back the coffin lid; it’s time to exhume the body.

Featured Image © Kiselev Andrey Valerevich |

As a child, I was raised on science fiction and fantasy. I learned to read by slowly wading through the Harry Potter series. My favorite possession was a book on dragons, and I have very distinct memories of cowering under my sheets in elementary school, convinced the sound of my accelerating heartbeat was actually the increasingly rapid drumbeat of a horde of orcs from Moria drawing closer.

Science fiction and fantasy have shaped me into the person I am today, so of course I leapt at the chance to take a first-year seminar on monstrosity. In my very first FSEM class, I analyzed the more recent film Star Trek Into Darkness in relation to the original. Comparing the two iterations of the villainous Khan, I realized that he had evolved from a domineering and intelligent foreigner into a powerful terrorist, so as to better match contemporary society’s fears. This wasn’t a change that took place over hundreds of years and generations; this significant evolution happened in fewer than forty years, and yet both movies were praised by their generations as having excellent villains.

While the idea of monsters changing to fit their society fascinated me, I didn’t explore it further until my second course on monstrosity. In my WRIT 1733 class, we learned about media ecology theory and the concept that information is altered by the media that convey it—just as monsters and their cultural significance alter across time, media, and society. Society is the medium through which the monster narrative evolves, and we can measure cultural changes through changing responses to the monster.

I hope my exploration of the society’s evolving response to the vampire encourages others to consider the history behind their favorite monsters, and what that says about the culture they live in.

Jessica BioJessica Garland came to DU from Greenwood Village, Colorado. She is a sophomore, pursuing degrees in English and Political Science. In her free time, you’ll find Jessica reading, writing, watching copious amounts of television, geeking out over movies, or hanging out with her friends. Fun fact about Jessica: she can sing the first fifty prepositions of the English language, in alphabetical order, from memory.


Atwater, Cheryl. “Living in Death: The Evolution of Modern Vampirism.” Anthropology of Consciousness 11.1–2 (2000): 70–77. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Betsinger, Tracy K., and Amy B. Scott. “Governing from the Grave: Vampire Burials and Social Order in Post-medieval Poland.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24.03 (2014): 467–76. Cambridge Journals. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dir. Francis F. Coppola. Screenplay by James V. Hart. By Bram Stoker. Perf. Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and Anthony Hopkins. Columbia Pictures, 1992. DVD.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season. Dir. Joss Whedon. Warner Bros., 2003. DVD. Fright Night. Dir. Craig Gillespie. By Marti Noxon and Tom Holland. Perf. Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell. DreamWorks Picture, 2011. DVD.

Hall, Robert L. “Ghosts, Water Barriers, Corn, and Sacred Enclosures in the Eastern Woodlands.” American Antiquity 41.3 (1976): 360–64. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Interview with the Vampire—the Vampire Chronicles. Dir. Neil Jordan. By Anne Rice. Perf. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, and Kirsten Dunst. Geffen Pictures, 1994. DVD.

Jackson, Morgan A. “Mindless Monsters: The Evolution of Vampire Mythology in Modern Fiction.” The Alexandrian 1.1 (2012): n. pag. The Alexandrian (Troy University Journals). Troy University, 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: ORB, 1995. Print.

Meyer, Jenna. “‘You’re a Vampire… Was That an Offensive Term? Should I Say Undead American’?’ The Evolution of the Vampire in Popular Culture.” University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2010. ProQuest Thesis. ProQuest. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005. Print.

Poole, W. Scott. “Undead Americans.” Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2011. 193–217. Print.

Senf, Carol A. “‘Dracula’: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman.” Victorian Studies 26.1 (1982): 33–49. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Smetana, Erik. “Books with Bite: The Evolution of the Vampire in Contemporary Literature.” The Missouri Review 34.1 (2011): 173–80. Summon. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Tenga, Angela, and Elizabeth Zimmerman. “Vampire Gentlemen and Zombie Beasts.” Gothic Studies 15.1 (2013): 76–87. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Whedon, Joss, dir. “Lie to Me.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Warner Bros. Network. 3 Nov. 1997. Television.

Appendix A
By completing the following questions, you are also granting consent for this information to be used as part of a research project that I am completing for a course at the University of Denver.  Your participation is completely voluntary.  The information you provide may be used in a project and may be published online and/or in print, but your identity will remain anonymous.  While profile information you volunteer in this survey may be included in my writing project (i.e. your age, sex, class standing, etc.), your name and identity will NOT be used or reported.  If at any time you do not want to answer a question, or do not want to complete the questionnaire, you do not have to.

1. Please select your current age from the options below.
Garland age

2. What gender do you identify as?
Garland gender

3. How interesting are the various traits of the vampire to you?
Garland chart

4. Select your three favorite vampire movies.  (Note: Some of these movies are related to books and television shows. This question only focuses on the movie-aspect so please only select your choices based off your opinion of the movies themselves.)
Garland films

5. Select your three favorite vampire television shows.  (Note: Some of these shows are related to books and movies.  This question only focuses on the television-aspect so please only select your choices based off your opinion of the shows themselves.)
Garland shows

Open-ended questions:
6. When you hear the word “vampire,” what comes to mind?
(Be as brief or descriptive as you want.)

7. What is your favorite interpretation of a vampire and why?  (This can be a creature from lore, movie character, book character, television character, etc.) (Be as brief or descriptive as you want.)

8. What is your least favorite interpretation of a vampire and why? (This can be a creature from lore, movie character, book character, television character, etc.) (Be as brief or descriptive as you want.)

Appendix B
Below are the three basic interview questions administered to both Interviewee A and Interviewee B. The phone interview had extra clarification questions to confirm answers. In order to maintain the confidentiality of the interviewees, the Informed Consent documents of each are located in a separate, private space.

1.Why are people capable over time of shifting their perception of monsters or entities they believe are threateningly different than themselves?

2.Are there other examples where a group of people altered its reaction to a creature perceived as an “outsider” or “foreign other?”

3.Are there social and psychological factors that prime or prepare people for accepting an “outsider” as similar to themselves and if so, what are these factors? Are there social and psychological factors that discourage this type of assimilation, and if so, what are they?

Figure 1
Below is a graph of the survey responses to the question “How interesting are the various traits of the vampire to you?” Respondents rated each trait as extremely uninteresting, uninteresting, kind of uninteresting, no opinion, kind of interesting, interesting, or extremely interesting (which corresponded with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 respectively). Their aggregate numbers were calculated and averaged, as represented in this graph.
Figure 1

Figure 2
Below is a graph of the survey responses to the question “Please select your three favorite vampire movies. (Note: Some of these movies are related to books and television shows. This question only focuses on the movie-aspect so please only select your choices based off your opinion of the movies themselves.)”
Figure 2

Figure 3
Below is a graph of the survey responses to the question “Select your three favorite vampire television shows. (Note: Some of these shows are related to books and movies. This question only focuses on the television-aspect so please only select your choices based off your opinion of the shows themselves.)”
Figure 3


A Bird’s-Eye View: Evolution of the Sky Burial in Practice

Cameron 4

beibaoke |


by Cameron Hickert
CHIN 410: Tibet and Buddhism | Professor Youli Sun

The history of the Tibetan sky burial is almost as unique as the tradition itself and is subject to an exceptional variety of influences, ranging from a barren environment to Communist oppression. Perhaps the most basic truth that aids in a historical analysis of the burial practice is one of the most fundamental facts of humanity: society is serious about death. This simple statement illuminates the tumultuous history of a practice that is seen as very gruesome to outsiders, but one rich in poetry to innumerable Tibetans. This path originates well before foreigners traveled to the region, and then winds through centuries of foreign disapproval and maintains popularity within the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism since the end of the sixteenth century) the entire time. The sky burial continues to be of central importance within Tibetan communities, much to the intrigue of a growing body of foreigners. Quite literally a matter of life and death, the importance of this practice has carried it through centuries of explicit persecution into a current era of continued, widespread practice amongst Tibetan Buddhists.

The sky burial is “the deliberate, culturally countenanced, exposure of human corpses to carrion birds” (Martin, 1996, p. 353) as a means of allowing the body to return to the Earth after an individual’s passing. The “sky” component of the term originates from this tradition often taking place upon high points of ground, such as the tops of mountains or hills. The practice is central to Tibetan Buddhism but finds analogues “among the Zoroastrians in Persia (modern Iran) and in two Parsi communities of modern India” (Martin, 1996, p. 353). Its rarity may contribute to less respectful definitions offered in the past, including one that describes an affair “in which bodies are chopped up and fed to vultures” (United Press International, 1985, para. 1). These dismissive definitions provide insight into the condescension placed upon sky burials by foreigners for centuries. On the contrary, the Tibetan term for the word—rir skyel—does not mention a burial, preferring the respectful euphemism “to carry to the mountain” (Martin, 1996, p. 354).

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beibaoke | – Skyl burial site at Larung Gar (Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy), a famous Lamasery in Seda, Sichuan, China.

Sky burials are one of three principal ways Tibetan Buddhists dispose of those who have passed, the others being cremation and water burial (in which fish provide the decomposition services vultures provide in sky burials). The scarcity of wood on the Tibetan plateau has ensured that cremations are reserved only for the most important community members; thus, sky burials have long been popular. The practice is an individual’s final altruistic gift, one in which his or her final earthly possession contributes to the well-being of other living beings. This selflessness resonates deeply with Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism’s focus on compassionate living. The culture does not highly value corpses; one Buddhist monk explained, “When the body dies, the spirit leaves, so there is no need to keep the body. The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing part of life’s cycle” (Faison, 1999, para. 9). The body must be provided in smaller pieces to the birds, and bones are often crushed and mixed with barley flour for vultures. Neither task is easy and both are reserved for the sky-burial master, entitled “tokden” (Woeser, 2004, p. 93).

The historical origins of the sky burial remain mysterious, since early Tibetan works typically only describe “the interments of saints and kings, not of common people” (Martin, 1996). Typically, these few highly-respected individuals would have earned burial, entombment, or cremation. Indeed, the earliest written record of a sky burial “is an inaccurate account from a European traveler of the fourteenth century” (Martin, 1996, p. 357). Already, foreigners were ready to misrepresent the practice without first gaining a deeper understanding of the religious, historical, and cultural significance of the ritual. Written sources were likely to be the only ones of use: “Because of the nature of the practice, archaeological finds are probably incapable of providing evidence” (Martin, 1996, p. 357). This reality has ensured that the origins of the practice remain hidden, lost to the appetites of birds throughout the centuries.

Almost as soon as the practice encountered the outside world, it also encountered strong opposition. The 1793 Chinese Imperial Throne sought to end the practice, issuing an edict that “the carving up of the remains of the dead shall be strictly forbidden” (Qu, 1990; qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 355). The edict condemned the practice with the description, “Sometimes the remains (of the human) are even chopped up and mixed with barley flour as food for vultures or dogs. These are bestial practices” (Qu, 1990; qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 356 ). As a strong reminder of the observation that society does not regard death lightly, the government declared that anyone who encouraged or watched a sky burial would be sentenced to death, and those who used the sky burial technique for their parents would be executed by “slicing their bodies into small pieces” (Qu, qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 356). The irony is that such a method resembles a component of the sky burial. Tibetans responded to this edict by taking “little or no heed of these notices” (Martin, 1996, p. 356). Once again, habits in disposing of the dead are not easily abandoned.

tibet map

Rainer Lesniewski |

The crusade against the sky burial redoubled in the mid-twentieth century, as Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs reached a zenith. The practice faced “attempts by Chinese Communist officials during the 1950s and 1960s to root out ‘feudal’ beliefs” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1991). Chinese officials regarded the sky burial “as a bizarre ritual of a primitive people” (Faison, 1999, para. 13) and fought to popularize cremations and underground burials in the region. This included an outright ban of sky burials throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This was a catastrophic encroachment on the rights of families, one that—for some families—surpassed rights-based concerns and bore more detrimental effects. Some Tibetans believed “the souls of those who did not go through the sky-burial ceremony could not escape from purgatory, and most probably became ghosts” (Woeser, 2004, p. 100), a fate that no one would wish upon departed friends or family.

Despite these pressures, Tibetan Buddhists persevered in preserving this ritual, and “Tibetans regained limited rights to practice religious ceremonies in the 1980s” (Faison, 1999, para. 13).

As the burial method continued, foreign disgust developed into a sort of morbid intrigue. Growth in tourism paralleled this curiosity, eventually presenting an unfavorable situation in which tourists would appear uninvited—and against the wishes of the deceased’s family—to observe the solemn spectacle. In 1985, United Press International reported that, “[t]his year more than 3,000 people have visited the mountainous region (Tibet), compared with 2,000 in all of 1984.” That very year, the Chinese government declared unwanted sky burial viewing illegal: “Visitors coming to Tibet are now banned from viewing sky burials, as a bid to protect the ancient Tibetan custom” (The Gazette, 1985). Whether this was born out of a desire to protect Tibetan culture or to prevent Chinese-Tibetan animosity is unclear, but such a declaration marked the first time that an outside government had taken measures in support of the practice.

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beibaoke |

Unfortunately, this modicum of support did not save the sky burial from an assault of tourists with easier access to the region: “Tourism is an officially designated ‘pillar of the economy’ in Tibet. The goal is to attract fifteen million tourists a year by 2015 in the so-called ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region,’ which has a population of only three million” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 5). The capital city is now connected by train to Beijing, and “In the first half of 2013, tourist visits to Lhasa surged by 36%” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 5). Pressures (which some critics have argued are governmental as well as economic) have pushed some monasteries to begin selling permission to view sky burials. Although it is illegal for tourists to watch the sky burials uninvited, a monastery (rather than the family, since the monastery is responsible for the burial process) can give permission for tourist viewing and, in at least one case, “The $5 tickets to the show come with a map to the site” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 4). This situation is clearly unacceptable and must be addressed to preserve the sacred solemnity of the tradition. The devil, of course, lies in the details; monasteries currently face tight restrictions—ranging from construction limits to strict management oversight to bans on certain images—and governmental and economic problems are not easy to overcome.

Despite these challenges, the sky burial remains surprisingly popular in the region. The Nationality Research Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences estimates that “[a]bout 80% of Tibetans choose the sky burial” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 6). Professor Nima of Tibet University places her own estimate at 95% of Tibetans; furthermore, she details that many of those who pass away in Lhasa opt for a ceremony to be held at a sky burial site that is about 40 kilometers outside of the city, near a large monastery. Like many religious practices so tightly woven with culture, the practice extends past strict religious lines. In a 2005 interview, the 20-year-old Lhasa native Zhaxi Toinzhub explained, “I would certainly choose sky burial after my death, though I’m not a Buddhist believer” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 2).

With the hope of shifting burial practices, in 2000 the Chinese government in Tibet constructed a modern crematory, but “it is not favored by Tibetans” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 17). Statistics certainly provide a clearer picture of the tradition’s popularity: “Tibet has 1,075 sky burial sites and 100 operators (those who conduct the ritual)” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 16). Once again, it seems that the cultural reverence for disposing of loved ones has ensured that the sky burial remains extremely popular, both among believers and non-believers on the Tibetan plateau.

While numerous cultural practices may seem odd to outsiders, the sky burial is particularly unique in the distaste it has attracted from foreign governments throughout the ages. This dislike has now become morbid tourist interest, but cameras used to capture the burial pose a similar threat to that of edicts from the past. However, mainstream Tibetan acceptance of the practice remains quite strong, and certain outside sources are beginning to favor the method. One scholar goes as far as to argue that “[i]t may not be too farfetched to speculate that, given an increased sense of ecological responsibility (even in the absence of Buddhist altruistic motivations), the world at large will learn to see the positive value of sky burial and perhaps eventually adapt it—assuming the birds will cooperate” (Martin, 1996, p. 367). While this perspective bespeaks a tongue-in-cheek optimism, the wherewithal of the Tibetan community in guarding this unique practice into the modern era suggests that the sky burial is far from being buried.

Featured Image © Fan jianhua |

The University of Denver would like to remind you of how many of its students study abroad. More specifically, the giant banner that hangs off the first DU building when exiting the interstate will serve as that reminder. Through the Cherrington Global Scholars Program, the University of Denver ensures that each of its study abroad partnerships bristles with student resources. For students who studied in Beijing, China, we all (foolishly) felt that we knew what we would encounter, even if we had no idea how to go about adapting to it. Numerous chats with students who had previously attended the program provided this false veneer of surety.

Of course, we were all promptly reminded how many “unknown unknowns” the abroad experience truly holds, and one that most surprised me was the Tibetan Buddhist practice of the sky burial. The ritual—detailed in this paper—deeply intrigued me, driving me to research the tradition further. How could I not know about so widespread a practice that concerns a highly important topic: death itself, a topic within a region (Tibet) that every college student who has ever been to a coffee shop claims to care about? I realized that the story of the sky burial serves as a reminder of my own ignorance and that it is also a powerful illustration of the value societies place on traditions surrounding the death of loved ones. Additionally, sky burial is a solemn depiction of the cruelty that befalls cultural rituals when faced with closed-minded perspectives. This paper uses an historical analysis of outsiders’ interactions with the sky burial to provide insight into the latter two themes, with the hope of informing readers who find this practice unique, interesting, and new.

Cameron Headshot Photo SquareCameron Hickert is a fourth-year student, majoring in physics and international studies. He is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and enjoys hiking, exploring Denver, and sitting on rooftop decks. His dream when he was in the first grade (which he hasn’t given up quite yet) was to drink milk in space. He’s not sure why milk would be cooler than any other drink, but he thinks the idea of jabbing a straw into a blob of floating milk seems like the best thing ever.


Faison, S. (1999, July 3). Lirong journal; Tibetans, and vultures, keep ancient burial rite. New York Times. Retrieved from

Martin, D. (1996). On the cultural ecology of sky burial on the Himalayan plateau. East and West 46(3–4), p. 353–370.

Ancient “sky burial” still popular in Tibet (1991, Nov. 28). San Francisco Chronicle, p. A 24.

Sydenstricker, P. (2014, January/February). The Disneyfication of Tibet. Washington Monthly, p. 11–13. Retrieved from

Knight-Ridder Newspapers. (1985, Oct. 16). The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from,2863416&hl=en

United Press International. (1985, Aug. 29). Tibet Vulture-feeding funerals off-limits to tourists. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Woeser. (2004). Rinchen, the sky-burial master. Manoa 24(1), p. 92–104.

Xinhua News Agency (2005, Aug. 31). Sky burial lives on in Tibet as traditional way for dead. China Internet Information Center. Retrieved from

“You Talkin’ To Me?”

Nick 7

logoboom |

by Nick Lewis
WRIT 1133: Writing and Research | Professor Carol Samson

1. The taxi driver, Richard, is driving my friend Cami and me back to our dorms.  It is midnight. Tired and satisfied, the two of us have been swing dancing at a local favorite, the Mercury Café in downtown Denver; as we ride, Richard describes the city, our city, to us from what he calls the “front row seat.” He reads Denver from street level, remembering when he was maneuvering the streets during the 1998 Denver riots after the Bronco’s 39-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, his cruising past the first medical marijuana dispensaries on Broadway in the mid-2000s. Tonight, though, he just pulled up to the Mercury Café in his Yellow cab, a late model Crown Victoria, and found us, Cami and me, and we became two new strangers in his back seat.  At first, all is ritual. Through the open plastic panel that divides driver from the passenger, Richard asks, “Where to?” But as we travel, Richard speaks of Denver flea markets, of construction projects that link Denver to the world, of immigration issues in our city.  Together we move through the winter night, and he becomes a narrator, an anthropologist, a sort of mythic Mercury, guiding us from dark level to dark level.

In time, I have begun to see how Richard, the cabbie, showed me to read the territory, and I now understand a taxi as a yellow box moving through a concrete city box. I can argue it as a translation of things both public and private and also because Richard pointed this out, as a certain kind of sacred thing.


Arina P Habich |

2. I must admit, though, that even before my ride in the Yellow cab with Richard, I knew romantic and historic tales of the taxi.


Thirty miles outside of Paris, the air was warm on the 6th of September 1914 until the weather began to change as a cold evening set in. Dew was forming on the open farm fields near the town of Meaux. Troops were tracking mud from the Marne River as the French Sixth Army, under French General Joseph Joffre, ordered the attack on the exposed flank of the German Army under the command of Alexander von Kluck. Meanwhile, a mere step away from this, the largest battle the world had yet to see, Parisian police officers were stopping cab drivers, telling their passengers to step out, instructing the drivers to head off to the Military College.

As many as three thousand Renault AC1 Landaulets, the most popular type of Parisian cab, each with the capacity to carry five men and with a top speed of 20–25 miles an hour, were transporting French troops to the world’s largest battle. In total, the Parisian cab drivers dropped off five thousand troops ready to attack the advancing German Army, aiding in this epic battle that ultimately blocked the siege of Paris and shifted the tides of war against Germany in the first Allied victory against the German onslaught (Hanc).

Yet, while the five thousand troops transported by taxis to the Battle of the Marne is significant, it does not come anywhere near to the one million men who fought in the war; and while the effort does make for a touching story of the power of a collective will, the taxi was, in reality, not the chief instrument in the French victory in the Battle of the Marne. It became, though, a story, a narrative that has persisted for one hundred years, one I learned in grade school and never forgot.

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 Pelle The Poet |

3.understand that while some of us may connect cabs to world history, most of us connect taxis to money, to cost. The word “taxi” comes from the German word “taximeter.” The taximeter was an invention created by Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891 in order to calculate the price of the ride determined by mileage traveled by the customers. The history of the taxi as a means of transport is, of course, much older and richer. It extends back to Paris in 1640 when the original taxis were horse-drawn carriages, vehicles created so that the rich Parisian nobility could travel from the theater and back home without needing to buy their own carriage or to support a driver of their own. In England, these taxis were actually more commonly referred to as “Hacks,” which comes from the word “Hackney”; we can trace its roots to the French word “Haquenée,” meaning a cart-pulling horse. The term “Hacks” or “Black Hack,” which is still a commonly used term in England today, can be traced at least to the 1654 Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney Coachmen that regulated the quality and expectations of service from taxis in England. The history stretches all the way back to the mid-17th century. Although today’s taxis are relatively affordable and available to anyone, during the Battle of Marne in 1914, the soldiers were quite astonished to be riding in a luxurious Parisian taxicab which had been common practice since the first taxis and “hackneys” (English).

In terms of modern cabs, the first successful motor cab actually came from the same place the automobile itself originated: Germany. Karl Benz, of Mercedes-Benz, collaborated with Gottlieb Daimler, of Daimler Motors, to introduce a new model of car, the Daimler Victoria N, which was marketed specifically for the use as a motorized taxi and was paired with a taximeter, the same one designed by Bruhn. Though the 1915 cost of producing one was an expensive 5,530 marks, or the equivalent of $28,400 today, the first motorized cab was a commercial success, and within three years of operation, six more were built (English).1 The shift to modern cab design can be traced to 1907, with the start of the Yellow Cab Company, and to 1923, when the first Checker Cab rolled off the assembly line from Kalamazoo, Michigan (Kohrman). Taxis became an integral part of the city, where everyone’s eye was meant to be caught by the design of these cabs, a design that the Checker company is most famous for, which shifted the look of a taxi from a reserved and upscale “Black Hack” to the more playful and common “Yellow Cab.” And, thus, the icon was born.

Today, ridesharing companies are making big changes that give us new words and new concepts of charges and risks. We call an Uber or a Lyft for a ride by using an app on our phone, which connects us to a nearby freelance driver who can choose to pick us up and give us a ride. We ride in car-cabs owned by the drivers. And, thus, these new services have become serious competitors to private hire vehicles such as cabs and limousines. And even as we call for them, knowing these new services are ubiquitous, cheap, and easy, we are oblivious to a subtle, but treacherous, cost.

4. As we ride through the concrete blocks of the city in the back seat of his yellow cab, Richard is telling us about his theory of these new operations, the threat to his livelihood created by Uber and Lyft.  He is saying that this sort of ride sharing is dangerous mostly because it has the same dangers as riding in a taxi, but without the same insurance guarantees. Should something bad happen, Richard says, the traditional taxi company will insure the passenger and the driver against any injury or death and even supply additional insurance for others involved in the accident who may have not been in the cab. Over his shoulder, Richard tells us he once got T-boned by a driver who ran a red light and that he, Richard, is still going to the doctor for physical therapy. Yellow Cab, Richard says, is paying for all of it.

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MaxyM |

5.know now that ridesharing services have caused quite a stir when it comes to safety issues for both passengers and drivers. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the city government is thinking of making these services have more regulated and frequent background checks on their drivers as well as requiring a company logo on each car (Deery). This legislation was initiated because of an incident wherein an Uber driver was pulled over by the police and, after an ensuing search, the police found both a gun and a knife in the driver’s vehicle. Another concern that recently affected the Denver area involved an Uber driver who was pulled over for driving while under the influence of alcohol. As Richard mentioned, over and above the looser regulations on drivers who work for independent companies like Uber, the regulated taxi companies argue that they incorporate the best of fuel economy, safety, and ease of transport—all of which is backed up with well-padded insurance policies. While Uber and Lyft drivers are required to have individual insurance on top of the additional insurance from their respective companies, studies show that their insurance is not nearly as extensive as what a real taxi company must pay.

Though the taxi industry is facing some new challenges with ridesharing services, these are not the first obstacles the industry has faced. While being a taxi driver can be a really well-paying job, the industry has severe drawbacks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a document, for example, that specifically details the dangers of being a taxi driver. Unfortunately, this occupation has the highest homicide rates of any occupation in the US. The article opens up with this sentence: “Taxi drivers are more than 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers” (“Preventing”). Taxi drivers—and ride share drivers for that matter—have to deal with the types of customers who are the most likely to get involved in a violent altercation due to known risks of the taxi job: working with cash, working at night, working alone, working in high crime areas, and working with people under the influence of alcohol. These factors combine to make the job far more dangerous than many other jobs.

6. While I did not hail Richard’s cab off the street, I did end up riding in his yellow American-made Crown Victoria, an American icon. On that night, I just needed a ride home, but I also knew that there is a certain level of mythology surrounding the taxi, that taxis are a strange presence in our lives. Take Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, in which Robert De Niro plays the role of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from insomnia and extreme disdain for the world and who makes his money driving a cab through the street of Manhattan. De Niro’s performance is one of the most iconic of all time, with the famous line “You talkin’ to me?” De Niro delivers this line when squaring up on his reflection in a full-body mirror like a madman and pulling a gun on his reflection, indicating his complete and total loss of touch with reality.  The film explores the darker and more taboo sides of 1970s New York through the eyes of someone who sees the city best, the taxi driver. In the opening montage—in beautiful, non-continuous style editing—the audience has a view of New York City from the outside and inside of Bickle’s taxi cab. The city’s “trash” mingles in the rain where a shallow-depth field lens focuses on an extreme close up of the side panel of Bickle’s canary yellow cab. From here the city looks out of focus, but the viewer follows the bright yellow contrast to the dark murky brown of the streets. At one point in the film, Scorsese allows the audience to peer into cabbie life as Bickle picks up an affluent man who cheats on his wife with a young prostitute in the back of the cab; and, in such moments, the director works to conjures up a deep, intricate mythos surrounding taxis.

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William Martins |

7. As we move along through the dark Denver streets in our yellow box, Richard mentions that he loves his job because he gets a front-row seat to watch how the city changes.  Unlike De Niro’s Bickle, who abhorred New York, Richard speaks to the beauty of a bustling, prosperous city. He tells us, too, that another part of the taxi experience that is hard to ignore is its similarity to a confession box. While not every passenger capitalizes on this, Richard says many of his customers talk about heavy and personal things. Richard says that cabbies see and listen to all sides of life through strange, yet anonymous, passengers. The truth is, he says, unless you knew them beforehand, you’ll likely never see your cab driver again, so you can confess anything you want to them.

I find myself thinking of Frank Ocean’s song “Bad Religion,” which tells a story of confession to a cab driver:

Taxi driver
You’re my shrink for the hour
Leave the meter running
It’s rush hour
So take the streets if you wanna
Just outrun the demons, could you?

Here the taxi driver takes on the role of a priest as well as that of a psychiatrist, and the lyrics suggest how powerful and impactful a listener a cabbie can be. In the dark confines of a cab, a mobile confessional, some people open up and seek advice they need.

Then from out of nowhere, Richard is confessing things. He is telling us that being a taxi driver is his only source of income, which he does only on the weekends. He is saying that he uses the money to pay for his own place and to take care of his son who he cares for on weekdays.  As we watch and listen, Richard is reaching for something, a trinket he keeps in his cab, and he is handing it to Cami and me so we can inspect it.  It is a slightly worn $20 bill. You can tell just by looking at it, even under the dim cabin light, even at midnight, that this bill is a counterfeit. Richard is confessing that one night, he was driving some large men who kept arguing with each other the entire night. After he dropped them off, he noticed the bill they used to pay for their fare was a fake. Richard got out of the cab and chased these guys down. They responded promptly by drawing their guns on him; finding himself facing death, Richard realized that it was just a $20 bill and that he didn’t need that $20. What he needed, he says, was to get home to his boy. He keeps the counterfeit bill around, he says, to remind him what is important.

8. So I come, at last, to a theory by Michel Foucault who, in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” argues that we live in an age of connectedness, of intertwined networks connected by sites which are “relations of proximity between points” (2). We live in a world where there are spaces that function within spaces like boats drifting on an ocean or taxis racing through a city. Some of those spaces become heterotopias, places outside of all places, places like cemeteries that define themselves as within, but different from, the space that surrounds them, places like museums that, filled as they are with artifacts removed from time and origin, take on their own interpretive meanings.

I see now that Richard’s taxi is just such a space, a dynamic heterotopia. It navigates the city, retraces patterns, and yet remains its own defined arena. It is a product of the city and a release from the city. As a passenger, I can ride in it knowing it as a public conveyance but also as a hidden and private venue. I can speak to the driver, or not, and I know that, if I do speak, we change the meaning of the space forever. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ride in this modern heterotopia, this other space within our city space, and we meet a man like Richard who can open something inside us, make us ponder the taxi journey as both dangerous and soothing, the cab itself as confession box or Scorsese movie set.  When this happens, we come see the taxi windows as photographic lenses, its surrounding city an amorphous thing of beauty, and its small talk, spoken in the dark in a comically yellow-mustard-colored car, as not so small after all.

Nick 1

John Tiedemann

1 My monetary conversion calculations from German Marks to USD comes from Professor Harold Marcuse’s Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page using January 1915 conversion rates.

I would personally like to thank everyone who helped me with this piece, starting with my parents for pushing me to get the ball rolling. Thank you both, Mom and Dad. Next, I would like to thank my WRIT 1133 professor, Dr. Samson. First and foremost, you drove me to keep after this piece and helped me to write the best version of this essay, and for that I am grateful. Lastly I would like to thank Carly Post for helping me edit my piece and retain my voice.

Featured Image © pimpic |

David Foster Wallace’s masterful interrogation of the Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster” draws out the most fascinating and perplexing insights into all things lobster. As a Biological Sciences major, it had been about a year since material like “Consider the Lobster” challenged my “right brain” creative thinking skills, but this kind of thought was to be expected in WRIT 1133.

After reading pieces such as On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, and “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, my mind was challenged in new ways with a particular fascination on the grand implications of something as trivial as the lobster. For me, taxis were an intriguing relic, speeding along city roads, the passenger simultaneously separate from, yet unequivocally an integral part of the city at the same time. The passengers are isolated and connected in a paradoxical way. It was exactly these paradoxes that prompted me to write about the taxi, so please enjoy.

Nick Headshot
Nick Lewis is a sophomore at DU pursuing a degree in biology.  He grew up in Arvada, Colorado, and enjoys skiing, swing dancing, rock climbing, ultimate frisbee, cars, music, and more skiing. Despite being on the pre-med track, Nick has always had a soft spot for film and cinema. Some of his favorites are There Will be Blood, The Dark Knight, Looper, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and The Princess Bride.


Deery, Jenna. “Leaders Say Safety Standards for Uber, Lyft Not Enough.” WSOC. 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 Apr.  2015.

English, Bob. “Classic Cars: All Hail the Birth of the Taxi in 1897.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. 5 (Oct. 1984). Rpt. Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22–27. Web. 20 Oct 2015.

Hanc, John. “A Fleet of Taxis Did Not Really Save Paris From the Germans During World War I: The Myth of the Battle of the Marne has Persisted, but What Exactly Happened in the First Major Conflict of the War?” 24 July 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Huet, Ellen. “New Laws Push Uber and Lyft to Bump up Insurance Coverage, but a Collision Gap Remains.” Forbes., 1 July 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Kohrman, David. “Checker Motors: Taxicab Makers.” Kalamazoo Public Library. Kalamazoo Public Library, May 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Marcuse, Harold. “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page.” Harold Marcuse. University of California Santa Barbara History Department, 19 Aug 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Ocean, Frank. “Bad Religion.” Channel Orange. Def Jam Recordings, 2012. MP3 file.

“Preventing Violence against Taxi and For-Hire Drivers.” OSHA Factsheet. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. 1976. Film. Sony Pictures. 2007. DVD.


The Spinning of Yarns

By Monica McFadden
WRIT 1633: The Creative Inquiry of Research | Professor LP Picard

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In November of 2006, SMITH Magazine ignited the six-word story craze. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, the magazine challenged writers to create their own six-word memoir. The legend goes that a few other writers bet Hemingway that he couldn’t tell a story in just six words. He wrote “for sale: baby shoes, never worn” and won the bet. It turns out this legend is not actually true; Hemingway didn’t pen this particular tale, and parts of this story have been discovered in sources that predate his era. That the origin of this craze is, in fact, a story itself only serves to fuel its impact. Many authors have attempted the six-word story, and the results are endless.1 They cover almost every genre, and there are even Twitter accounts for them (@sixwords and @sixwordstories). Some more comedic examples include Margaret Atwood’s “Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved” and David Brin’s “Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.” This trend demonstrates the draw of a simple challenge: stripping down a story to its core and exploring what it truly means to create.

Stories come in an ever-increasing number of forms but lie at the core of human understanding; stories are how we relate to each other. They allow us to live other lives and help others to live ours. Here, stories of all kinds will come together to take us back to our storytelling roots.

1 There are best-selling books (including Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure), Tumblr pages, YouTube channels, Flickr image galleries, and more, all dedicated to these stories.

In 2003, writer and artist Shelley Jackson penned a 2,095-word story called “Skin.” It was never published traditionally. Instead, the story exists only in the form of tattoos on the skin of over 2,000 volunteers: a single word inked onto various participants to create one strangely connected, living and breathing story. It’s impossible to assemble the story completely; not only are the participants disparate, but one of them has even died. The only people allowed to read the story are the participants themselves. They’re sworn to secrecy, so no one else will ever know the narrative. This story has a tangible existence, though only just; the project itself isn’t even complete. But it does exist, the words moving around through life, unread, living on the skin of thousands of people.

Jackson refers to the participants as “words,” writing in an e-mail to the LA Times:

I usually call them words, or my words, as in, ‘I got an angry e-mail from one of my words,’ or ‘Two of my words just got married!’ […] Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.’ I am a word myself: the title, Skin.

To be part of an ever-changing story that no one will read screams “human!” in a singularly symbolic way. Jackson’s story is constantly evolving, just as our individual lives are, and very few can sit down and read the convoluted story that encompasses its many moving parts. It mirrors the messy way stories play out in our lives and the fact that we won’t ever be able to read the ways in which we are all connected.

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“Shelley Jackson documents another one of her words being tattooed onto a volunteer.” (left) “The author (also an artist) had a diagram on the wall and was keeping track of the placement of every word as they were tattooed on the volunteers’ bodies. Here she is adding ‘patch’ to the diagram.” (right)        Andy Pixel |

Stories don’t have to be tangible to leave a mark on us.2 The mode by which a story is told says a lot about the story itself and its author. Jackson wrote a story that can never truly be read. In this unusual case, the mode is more widely known than the story’s plot. One could even argue that the mode is the story, and that’s the point of this whole experiment to begin with. The form eclipses the content and takes on a life of its own.

One of the “words” in this project, Jess Zimmerman (“away,”), has written about her experience for xoJane. While the project is a fascinating concept as a whole, Zimmerman also recognizes the significance of the words themselves:

When I got my word, I had just decided to leave graduate school, and the man who’d been colonizing my brain for years was moving to another country. I had all the relief and vertigo that accompanies new freedom. That’s part of what ‘away,’ means to me, and thus what it means in the story. Every word we use has a story of its own, one that authors can make use of but that’s totally outside the realm of authorial control.

To think that each word we use has its own history, its own story outside of the one we’re telling, is exhilarating. These stories permeate our rhetoric in ways we rarely consider and give life to speech that usually only exists in fantasy. Suddenly, everyday language is elevated to magical incantations, but with the history and personality of individual people. In “The Magical Power of Words,” S.J. Tambiah explores the nature of words in ritual, sacred, and magical contexts and examines what gives these words their power. He argues that “sacred words are thought to possess a special kind of power not normally associated with ordinary language,” though he wonders how much this is “due to the fact that the sacred language as such may be exclusive and different from the secular or profane.” In the context of Skin, every word, no matter how ordinary, possesses this special kind of power due to the exclusive nature of the project. Each word’s sacred quality is shaped by its many layers of connotations.

Zimmerman goes on to say:

I turned out to know a “the” before I ever learned about the project, but only found out she was a word much later. I ran into “them” and “grows” on the Metro once. I got together with “memorious.” when I was giving a paper on “Skin” at a conference in grad school […] In the original story, our words are nowhere near each other, but in the real story—the story of what words do, alone and together, when they’re set free—we appeared in each other’s texts for a while. […] It isn’t really that [Jackson’s] turning people into her words; it’s that she’s turning her words into people.

Jackson’s tangible story is a unique one, that’s for sure. But in reality, it’s simply bringing to light the infinite interactions between ordinary people. Everyone is part of many overlapping stories, not just the one it seems they’ve been written into. People are messily bumping into one another, exchanging pasts and sharing futures. And when one dies, it does indeed affect many stories.

2 Pun intended once realized.

Serial, a popular podcast hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, tells the true story of the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and is now serving a life sentence. However, the conviction of Adnan3 sits on a rocky story, with many elements that don’t add up. Koenig released the episodes in weekly installments, sharing information while she was still investigating and making listeners wait on pins and needles for answers. The mysterious nature of the story shot the podcast to fame.4 The popularity of the podcast5 led to Adnan’s story being pulled apart and examined by amateur sleuths. Adnan’s life story, as well as the other people involved in the case, has been appropriated by the podcast. Koenig portrays him in a mostly positive light, but Adnan has little control over his own personal story. Adnan offers his voice through phone interviews with Koenig from prison, but ultimately, Koenig and the producers have control over his representation.

This begs the questions: Who has the right to tell your story? As soon as you tell your story, does it belong to those who hear it? And do they have any commitment to the way you originally told it?

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Casey Fiesler |

This question of agency has caused some controversy surrounding the podcast. The experiences of Adnan, a teenager from a Muslim family, and Hae, daughter to Korean immigrants, are filtered through Koenig’s flawed ethnographic interpretation. Sociologist John Van Maanen writes in Tales of the Field that ethnography “rests on the peculiar practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one’s own experience in the world of these others.” Koenig tries, but ultimately fails, to get a full grasp on the cultures that Hae and Adnan come from and the nuances of their lives.6 After all, Koenig is a white reporter for This American Life, which isn’t exactly the ideal candidate for analyzing a racially nuanced situation. Jay Caspian Kang discusses this in his article “White Reporter Privilege,” noting that “the listener is asked to simply trust Koenig’s translation of two distinct immigrant cultures.” Koenig reacts to aspects of their lives with naïve surprise due to the internalized stereotypes she has. In the second episode, Koenig remarks, “[Hae’s] diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girl’s diary,” as if Hae weren’t actually a typical teenage girl.

Koenig also blatantly skips over one of the most prominent parts of the narrative—that the Baltimore criminal justice system in the late 1990s didn’t favor Muslims or black men. She’s surprised to hear that prejudice and racism might play a role in the arrests and doesn’t fully delve into that impact. As innocent as these intentions might be, attempting to tell a story you don’t fully understand is dangerous; it can severely warp listeners’ understanding of situations and cultures.

While Adnan is certainly the face of a case that is now being picked apart by the masses, this “story” didn’t just happen to him. It affected a whole group of people involved in the case, and their stories are also pulled into the podcast. Guardian journalist Jon Ronson spoke with Adnan’s family about their reactions to Serial. Ronson says that “Yusuf [Adnan’s younger brother] spends a lot of time online, lurking on Reddit, although he knows ‘it’s just toxic.’ [Ronson asks:] ‘Toxic because five million detectives are all studying Adnan’s voice for clues as to whether he’s a psychopath?’” This treatment of Adnan’s life as some kind of crime show plot to be solved by the public is exactly what’s making the strange fame so difficult, both for him and his family. Each member of Adnan’s family grapples with the stress of the coverage from the podcast in different ways; his father even suffers from depression but won’t address it. It’s not just a story for them; it’s their lives.

So are your experiences solely your own? Well, in Adnan’s case, apparently not. His story also belongs to his community, to Koenig, and now to the audience.

The problem with agency in storytelling is that what’s portrayed as truth becomes fact when it’s the only version heard. Koenig’s interpretation of the story isn’t all bad or necessarily incorrect, but it is what shot Adnan’s story to fame and is largely the only version that has been heard. When specific stories become the narrative for entire groups without their consent, the true understanding of people’s experiences can be completely lost. Adnan’s story may only affect a relatively small group of people, but how much of our history—our world’s history—is told through the warped interpretations of others?

3 I recognize that I should be referring to Adnan and Hae by their last names. I naturally call them by their first names in both writing and discussion, mostly because that’s how they are referred to in the podcast, which prompts an interesting question about using their first names. It makes them both more relatable to the audience, but at the same time it perpetuates the idea that they are simply characters in a story. I’m sticking with the first names here because I’ve become familiar with them, and “Lee” and “Syed” feel too distant now. However, the implications do create some food for thought.

4 Trust me, this story is addicting. I listened to the entire podcast, all twelve episodes, within about 24 hours. As a heads up, to spare anyone the disappointment I felt, the podcast doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion as to Adnan’s guilt (although he certainly doesn’t appear so). The podcast’s popularity inspired a group of lawyers, led by Rabia Chaundry (who appears in Serial), to return to the case. To follow this story, listen to the new podcast Undisclosed.

5 In an article about Serial’s success, CNN estimated that the podcast was downloaded 40 million times during its first 13 weeks.

6 Koenig makes a number of assumptions about Hae and Adnan’s upbringing throughout the podcast. She puts words in Adnan’s mouth about the struggles of his cultural upbringing; he uses the term “parameters” when talking about the constraints of his family life, and Koenig interprets this as “immigrant parents,” a term Adnan never uses. As Julia Carrie Wong argues in her article “The Problem with ‘Serial’ and the Model Minority Myth,” “every positive detail is surprising, while the potentially negative details are assumed.”

When I was young and falling asleep in my lilac-painted bedroom, my parents would sit on my bed and tell me stories. My mom always crawled in next to me, regardless of the fact that there was little room in my twin bed with me and my battalion of stuffed animals.7 She would tell me “Amy” stories about a girl who loved to climb, the Empire State Building being one of her many conquered destinations. Sometimes we would do “fill-in-the-blank” stories in which I would excitedly start off, “Once upon a time there was a—” and anxiously await her sleepy reply.

On the other hand, my dad—often the more alert and willing one—would tell Troll Stories. They documented the nighttime escapades of the trolls (those squat, wispy-haired dolls from the 1990s) who lined my windowsill.8 Each episode starred Monica, who woke up in the middle of the night to discover that the trolls were missing. She would go downstairs to the kitchen and help them get food and supplies before bringing them back upstairs to the windowsill. Each morning, she would wake up to find them exactly as they were before, not knowing if it was real or a dream.


David King |

These stories have left lasting impacts on my understanding of the world. Amy was adventurous and fearless, and went after her goals with determination. In the troll stories, Monica blurred the line between dreams and reality, and used creativity to help her friends. These stories stressed values that I still hold dear today, values that are important to my whole family.

Many people have similar memories and will be able to recall a popular bedtime story from their childhood, a favorite book beloved by the whole family, or a classic family event that grows more dramatic each time it’s retold. These stories lie at the core of human connection and help to build our ideas of who we are.

As a matter of fact, this act of oral storytelling is likely one of the oldest and most extensive traditions to date. As educator and author Dr. Michael Lockett discusses in The Basics of Storytelling, this practice has existed since the dawn of humankind. He identifies one of the oldest records of oral storytelling from Egypt (sometime between 2000–1300 BCE), where three sons entertained their father Khufu with spoken-word stories. Telling stories is an intimate way of establishing strong familial bonds with someone and has brought grandparents, parents, and children together for centuries.

Oral storytelling hasn’t been used strictly for entertainment. It has been used to preserve the narratives of entire peoples. The biblical tales of Abraham and Moses were the defining stories of the Hebrew people, helping them understand who they were at their core. For centuries, they’ve told the stories of their people, stories of perseverance and loyalty, history mingled with myth, tying each person together through a common narrative.

A common narrative can define thousands of people for generations on end or tell the simple story of a single family. The common narrative of my family is found through a past in Indonesia. My dad spent part of his childhood as a missionary kid living in Tomohon while my grandpa was a doctor. My siblings, my cousins, and I have all grown up hearing stories about our parents’ time there—climbing up the volcano behind their house, the pet monkey they had in their backyard, the giant beetles they would tie strings to and play with. All of these little windows into the past connect us to this distant place with which none of us have first-hand experience. Our parents’ and grandparents’ past in Indonesia is a way we all construct our self image; it helps us understand what it means to be a McFadden.

7 Fifty percent of the time, she’d just fall asleep. I inherited my atrocious sleep schedule from her, so now I understand where she was coming from.

8 This was a McFadden tradition, coming from my Dad’s side of the family. My grandparents had a whole shelf of trolls in their old house, and my cousins and I would play with them when we were young. Only looking back on it now do I realize how vaguely creepy they were.

Readers have always manipulated and adapted stories, but the modern practice of fan fiction is a new take on this. Entire sites are dedicated to fan stories set in the universes of fans’ favorite books, films, and television shows. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to create and distribute fan fiction. This subculture includes everything from horribly written stories in which the characters are nothing like the originals to brilliant writing that explores aspects of a story previously left unexamined. Fans write in alternate universes (AUs), set classic stories in modern times, or “ship”9 characters.

While digital technology has made it easier to produce and distribute fan fiction, the practice is not exclusive to this millennium. The Brontë children, including Charlotte of Jane Eyre fame, wrote fiction about the real-life 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, and his two sons, Arthur and Charles. Charlotte and Branwell, the only Brontë brother, wrote in a fantasy world called Angria. In 1833, at age 17, Charlotte wrote a tale called “Something About Arthur,” the hand-stitched book measuring just three and a half inches tall and 25 pages long. Rebecca Onion, of Slate’s history blog The Vault, reports that, in typical Brontë fashion, “its plot follows two aristocratic brothers, one of whom narrates the story of the other’s romantic encounter with a poor, but worthy, peasant girl.” There’s no doubt that the Brontë siblings would have fared quite well in the world of Tumblr fan fiction, given that they so enjoyed documenting fictional tales of their aristocratic heroes.10

Classical fan fiction also includes E. Nesbit’s work The Magic World, part of which is heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Furthermore, elements of E. Nesbit’s The Magic World directly inspired works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One story in The Magic World, “The Aunt and Amabel,” follows a little girl who travels to another world through a wardrobe. It’s clear that the audience’s need to add their own voice to a story and to interact with those worlds isn’t a new desire. So why has this desire been a strong motivation for so long?

This deep interaction with stories can give the reader a sense of ownership over the story once they begin to create within it. This is completely different from simply reading a favorite book; fans change integral parts of characters and settings. As a reader of fan fiction, not a writer myself, my perception of these manipulations is that the writers are interested in changing the atmosphere around a character to see how they react. The interpretation of these characters depends on the author, and each one inserts a little of themselves into their fan fiction. Fans can also help a story continue after the film, books, or episodes end.

Until recently, fan fiction existed independently of the canon.11 Today, a web series called Kissing in the Rain has its own unusual twist on fan fiction. After each episode is released, any fan fiction reblogged by the creators on the official Tumblr of the series becomes canon. This is what makes Kissing in the Rain so innovative: fans become an integral part of the creation process. This turns the creator/audience relationship on its head and gives the fans a great deal of agency. Now, their headcanons12 and wishes for the story aren’t just buried in the depths of a fan fiction site; they’re laced into the actual narrative itself.

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Imagine Communications |  – ‘One Day More’ from the Toronto production of LES MISERABLES. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After going through a distinct Les Miserables phase in high school, I read a decent amount of Les Mis fan fiction. The interesting thing about the world of Les Miserables fan fiction is that it exists almost entirely in modern AUs. This is mainly due to the fact that roughly 98% of the characters are dead at the end.13 Modern alternate universes allow the fans to fully explore the characters in different situations.14 Enjolras, the fierce revolutionary leader, might be fighting for racial equality and LGBT rights instead of for the freedom of France. Les Amis de l’ABC15 could be high school or university students ablaze with the passion of revolution all the same, regardless of the century-and-a-half time gap.

These characters have been entirely removed from their original setting and situation, and yet the writers still pull integral elements of their personalities from the book to flavor their actions. While it may be a very different story, I often find myself thinking that Victor Hugo might not be too opposed.16 Taking a narrative from the past and connecting it to the present is an important way for us to understand events and people in history. Our history is largely told through stories, and the ones that stick with us help us to see famous artists, revolutionary politicians, and even ordinary people from the past as clearly as we see ourselves.

Often, people’s perception of fan fiction is that it’s juvenile and strange and not real writing. But all writers are heavily influenced by their favorite works; fan fiction is just up front about it. Originality is somewhat of an illusion; many works are amalgamations of influences and previous ideas morphed into different forms and drawing new connections. We have a constant need to take our favorite things and adapt them to make them our own; we can’t just be passive readers but instead want to be co-creators and participate fully in the story-making process.

9 “Ship” or “shipping,” short for “relationship,” is a term used when fans pair certain characters in romantic relationships. While this can be a relationship depicted in the story itself, it’s often with characters who are not canonically together, such as Harry/Draco (the Harry Potter series) or Eponine/Enjolras (Les Miserables). These ships can also occur across fandoms, and, yes, can be as ridiculous as Anne Frank/Goku (Dragonball Z). A real person thought that was a good idea.

10 What I would give to see what the Brontë siblings would post on these days. Do I sense a coffee shop AU?

11 The “canon” of a story is what’s actually part of the narrative written by the author. Fan fiction can be canonically correct (occur alongside the storyline) or go against canon (deviate from what’s published).

12 “Headcanon” refers to a particular belief or idea which is not part of a story’s canon, but makes sense to an individual fan. It is an individual’s “personal canon.”

13 A personal estimation on my part, though quite accurate, I think.

14 Like ones in which they’re not all dead.

15 The Friends of the ABC, or the Barricade Boys. The “ABC” is a pun—the French “abaissés,” meaning “lowly” or “abased,” is pronounced “a-be-se.”

16 This is partly due to the sheer amount of Enjolras/Grantaire fan fiction that exists, a pairing that cheeky Victor Hugo blatantly supported in the book. After all, the two die hand in hand.

The oldest surviving story is The Epic of Gilgamesh. Carved into a clay tablet by the Mesopotamians in about 2100 BCE, it is likely a written version of tales that had been previously told by word of mouth for ages. This ancient story follows Gilgamesh—part man, part god—through his encounters with many gods, monsters, and heroes. One major part of the story recounts a great flood sent by the gods to wipe out humankind. However, the god of wisdom warns one man of the plan and instructs him to build a boat to save his family and all living creatures. After the flood, the gods regret what they’ve done and promise never to do it again.

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Patrick Burgler |

Sound familiar? Many would recognize this as the story of Noah’s Ark, but all major world religions have great flood stories. The oldest surviving story continues to appear in modern culture thousands of years later.  Although under a vague guise, it’s still being adapted into cartoony children’s books and movies with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson.

Storyteller Joe Sabia explains in his TED talk, “The art of storytelling has remained unchanged. And for the most part, the stories are recycled. But the way that humans tell the stories has always evolved with pure, consistent novelty.” While the heart of the story may remain the same, the shifting elements and its form are always changing. This sentiment doesn’t only belong to Sabia. Christopher Booker explores this idea in his masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Booker argues that we’ve been telling the same stories throughout history, from our oral storytelling roots to TV shows and movies today. While there are theories for why we gravitate toward these story arcs, nobody is completely sure.17 Joseph Campbell’s famous work on the “Hero’s Journey” illustrates this same idea—the same narrative of the hero archetype has been told throughout all of history, whether in Beowulf or Star Wars.18 It seems as though these stories are rooted in cultures around the world throughout the centuries because they’re rooted in human nature. Stories are a current running through all of humanity that can connect us to our past, present, and future.

Arthur A. Brown muses in his essay “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh”:

We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written […] because we want to know the meaning of life. […] There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories—and reading is a kind of re-telling—not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.

This can all sound very philosophical and abstract, but what he’s saying is that reading old stories from history, like the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, tells us something about ourselves, something inherent in us as humans.

Sarah Kay is a spoken-word poet who often works with youth to help them find their version of this meaning of life through workshops and lectures. In her TED Talk, “If I Should Have a Daughter…,” she describes her first experience with spoken word poetry at age 14:

My first spoken-word poem, packed with all the wisdom of a 14-year-old, was about the injustice of being seen as unfeminine. […] The first time that I performed, the audience of teenagers hooted and hollered their sympathy, and when I came off the stage, I was shaking. I felt this tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see this giant girl in a hoodie sweatshirt emerge from the crowd. She was maybe eight feet tall and looked like she could beat me up with one hand, but instead she just nodded at me and said, “Hey, I really felt that. Thanks.”

That’s what this whole storytelling thing is about. It’s the reason we, as humans, rely so much on narratives in every aspect of our lives. Telling stories reveals something innate in us as humans, tugging at our need to relate and understand. It allows us to connect on a basic level with people from all different backgrounds and find a personal truth in the tales that have been told for generations. It’s about putting convoluted human experiences into words, a fuzzy mingling of truth and fiction, and having someone, somewhere, say, “Hey, I really felt that.”

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TED Conference | – Sarah Kay performing at a TED Conference.

17 One theory explored in Booker’s work, shared by many late 19th century writers, is that these stories simply served to explain and act as metaphors for natural phenomena that people didn’t understand. For instance, dragons and monsters in stories would stem from the discovery of dinosaur bones. Now, scholars tend to agree that there’s no one answer for why certain stories keep cropping up throughout history.

18 Campbell fully explores and details the Hero’s Journey in his revolutionary book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Featured Image © David Alonso |

When I was in elementary school, my older siblings taught me how to line the crack of my bedroom door with a sweatshirt to block the light, so my parents wouldn’t know I was up late reading. I suppose it goes without saying that I grew up an avid reader, something that was practically written into my family’s genes, especially given my mom’s career as a publisher. These days, I consume stories in any manner possible—books, movies, TV shows, web series, podcasts, or directly from the lips of a storyteller.

When it came to choosing a topic for a research paper, stories seemed like a natural selection, considering my background. You could say I’ve been researching this topic my entire life. This essay grew out of the variety of stories that had caught my attention and were tumbling around in my head at the time I began this writing project. My interest was piqued by the strange forms, unexpected effects, and incredible timelessness of stories.

Everyone has stories tucked away in the many parts of their lives. Hopefully this essay will bring a magnifying glass to the importance of these tiny narratives. The essay didn’t really fit any of the traditional formats, and so it took on a podcast-like form with distinct sections, each one revealing a different truth about the classic act of telling tales.

McFadden bioMonica McFadden is a second-year student from Elgin, Illinois, who is studying Art History and Journalism at DU. She enjoys musical theater, exploring new cities, and painting. She considers herself a somewhat serious macaroni and cheese connoisseur, a position for which she’s been training since kindergarten.


Anderson, Douglas A., ed. Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Del Ray / Ballantine, 2008. Print.

Anderson, Douglas A., ed. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. New York: Del Ray / Ballantine, 2003. Print.

Berg, Pete. Six Word Stories. Pete Berg, 2009. Web. 2 June 2015.

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006. Print.

Brown, Arthur A. “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Exploring Ancient World Cultures. University of Evansville, 1996. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Bricken, Rob. “Fan Fiction Friday: Goku and Anne Frank in ‘Until the End of Time.’” The Robot’s Voice. Voice Media Group Inc., 19 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Fershleiser, Rachel and Larry Smith, eds. Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Print.

“Headcanon.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Jackson, Shelley. “Skin Guidelines.” Shelley Jackson’s Ineradicable Stain. Shelley Jackson. n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Kang, Jay Caspian. “White Reporter Privilege.” The Awl. The AWL, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Kay, Sarah. “If I Should Have a Daughter…” TED2011. TED Conferences LLC. Long Beach, CA, 3 Mar. 2011. Lecture.

Kellogg, Carolyn. “Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project 2.0.” LA Times Blog. Los Angeles Times, 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Koenig, Sarah. “Episode 2: The Breakup.” Audio blog post. Serial Podcast. This American Life, Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Lockett, Michael. “History of Storytelling,” The Basics of Storytelling. Taipei: Caves Educational Technology Company, 2008. Digital. 2 June 2015.

Onion, Rebecca. “A Teenaged Charlotte Brontë’s Tiny Little Romance.” Web blog post. The Vault. The Slate Group LLC, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 June 2015.

Roberts, Amy. “The ‘Serial’ Podcast: By the numbers.” Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Ronson, Jon. “Serial: The Syed Family on Their Pain and the ‘Five Million Detectives Trying to Work Out if Adnan is a Psychopath.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 7 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Sabia, Joe. “The Technology of Storytelling.” Full Spectrum Auditions. TED Conferences LLC. New York, 24 May 2011. Lecture.

Six Words, LLC. “Six Words.” SMITH Magazine, 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Tambiah, S.J. “The Magical Power of Words.” Man 3.2 (1968): 175–208. Web. 2 June 2015.

Van Maanen, John. Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.

Wong, Julia Carrie. “The Problem with ‘Serial’ and the Model Minority Myth.” Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed, Inc., 16 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Zimmerman, Jess. “My Life as a Word: How I Became Part of the ‘Skin’ Short Story Project.” xoJane. Time Inc. Style Network, 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.


Recipe for Mom’s Chocolate Cake


by Olivia Hayes
WRIT 1622: Re-Reading and Re-Writing Culture | Professor LP Picard

Mom’s Chocolate Cake
2 cups sugar
1 cup self-deprecation


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Inara Prusakova |

I had my first boyfriend during my junior year of high school. I had been going to school with him since kindergarten, as was the case with most of the kids in my class of 100 students. He had never shown any interest in me until Homecoming of junior year. I had just gotten a tiny new navy blue dress to go with my tiny new body. I had been running cross-country that year, and after being the last to finish after two races, I started “kicking it into gear,” as my coach would say. I changed my diet and ran a little extra after practice; inevitably, I lost forty pounds in three months. As a result, that navy blue dress bumped me up an entire rung on the social ladder. I was no longer an “in-betweener.” Instead of being the girl that the boyfriends of my really pretty friends simply got along with, I was considered one of the pretty friends. All of a sudden, I sat next to Garrett Lowe (the second cutest guy in school) at lunch, and I stood in the second row during football games, right behind the senior it-girls.

No, this wasn’t like in a romantic comedy when the invisible girl takes off her glasses and swings her hair around in slow motion with a soft light around her, everyone stopping to watch her. No. Because I was there all along, they saw me. I had established a role as a funny-almost-cute girl that everyone knew but never asked to dance. I was always there, as a stock character in a high school drama, but now I was in a leading role.

The fantasy didn’t last forever, like it usually does in the high-school type romantic comedies that I wished I were in. The end of senior year brought freedom and heartbreak, as well as a busy schedule. The unconditional love I thought I was in showed its true colors, and my fragile, naïve teenage mind was not equipped for such a blow. Cross-country ended, and I replaced the exercise with locking myself in my room, writing paper after paper for college applications, going through bag after bag of chips—thus commencing another round of self-hatred and embarrassment. How had I allowed myself to fall back into old habits? I was horrified that my transformation wasn’t permanent, and even more afraid of the thought of returning to a role that is now called, thanks to Hollywood, the Designated Ugly Fat Friend (DUFF). My self-worth had become completely and exclusively defined by my appearance.

¾ cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
½ cup guilt

The dilemma we face is that a cycle of negativity and body shaming is never-ending. The evidence is everywhere—from social media to classrooms to advertisements. In a recent social experiment on Tinder, an eighteen-year-old girl replied to compliments by agreeing with them (Warren). For example, if a man said that she was gorgeous, she responded by saying, “I know,” or “Yes I am, thank you.” Almost every time she replied by agreeing, the man immediately modified his compliment or replied with a rude comment. They called her “vain,” “full of herself,” even a “bitch.” It seems that a man can compliment a woman or call her beautiful, but the second she agrees with him and sees herself positively, she is scorned and rejected. This is also seen when women compliment each other. I actually can’t remember the last time I accepted a compliment without reservations or qualifications. Someone might say that they loved my legs, and I would respond by saying, “Oh thanks, they are too muscular, and my thighs never look good in jeans.” Or they might tell me that they love my hair, and I would retort with a comment on how difficult it was to tame, or how I wished it were lighter.

A study done at the University of Pennsylvania showed that 45% of women who were given compliments rejected those compliments (Han). Only 20% accepted the compliment, and the other 35% evaded the compliment altogether. As reported by Diane Mapes at Today, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, Renee Engeln, says that women are taught to love themselves, but not too much. According to Engeln, we are expected to exude confidence yet, in our actual verbal interactions, act humble. She says that we live in a culture in which women are discouraged from being confident, as confidence comes off as arrogant and even unfeminine. As young girls mature, they are exposed to more and more women who exemplify and manifest their hatred of their own bodies. Girls learn very early that it is socially acceptable and actually standard to ridicule themselves. They are told by women around them and by societal norms that they shouldn’t acknowledge their worth.

1 cup milk
¾ cup rejection

Here are some things I’ve heard from important people in my life:

  • “You have a really pretty face.”
  • “Cuddling with you is so great. I hate cuddling with skinny girls.”
  • “I don’t understand what’s so hard, like, just work out more.”
  • “You look so skinny, so pretty.”
  • “It’s so weird that Soph is so small. Are you sure she’s your sister?”
  • “When was the last time you worked out?”
  • “You know what they say, ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ I’m sure you’ll understand that in the future.”
  • “I don’t think you should be looking for a boyfriend right now. I wouldn’t want you to get your heart broken because he doesn’t like you.”

2 eggs
1 teaspoon self-disgust

Young girls are particularly influenced by what people around them say and do in relation to their appearance. A study by Gleason, Alexander, and Somers shows just how important the things women hear are to their future self-image. These scholars analyzed how three different types of teasing correlate to a child’s body image during adolescence. They found that girls who were teased are much more likely to have a negative body image later on in life than their male counterparts. They also found that girls’ body image was significantly more negative if they were teased in any of the three manners studied. These three types of teasing were defined as teasing about appearance, teasing about weight, and teasing about competence. The results showed that women equate competence, appearance, and self-esteem with body image and that teasing leads to horrifying results: 81% of girls had dieted by the age of 10. Young girls are taught that their body is a measure of their worth and that in order to be competent young women, they need to change their bodies.

Hayes 6

Orla |

Unfortunately, this never goes away. In a study performed by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91% of women were unsatisfied with their bodies and had taken action to change. Of these women, 75% had some type of eating disorder. When we think of an eating disorder, we usually envision the much recognized anorexia and bulimia. However, only 10% of women with an eating disorder suffer from either of these. An eating disorder is any of a range of psychological disorders that is characterized by abnormal or disruptive eating habits. What most women experience is an unhealthy relationship with food. They might count calories incessantly, have feelings of massive guilt, or have an unnecessary abundance of food-related conversations. All of these are signs of an eating disorder. This also means that

  • 91% of women feel insignificant and incompetent because of their body;
  • 91% of women have destructive thought patterns; and
  • 91% of women walk around the mall wondering if people notice how large their thighs are or if people are looking at their minor double chin, just like I do.

1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon insecurity

The media consistently infiltrates the minds of young girls with images and ideas of what a woman should look like. Women are expected to be thin and tall and have large breasts, smooth skin, big lips, full eyelashes, and long legs. When a woman doesn’t match these specific guidelines, they are treated as inferior to the women who do have these attributes. Magazine advertisements are a great example of this. Advertisements in men’s magazines generally show sexually attractive women who are skinny, busty, long, and glowing. Sex is selling the product. However, in women’s magazines, we do not see pages upon pages of images of chiseled men in articles, advertisements, or essays. Instead, we see the same images of stick-thin models with large breasts and big butts. Sex isn’t selling the product to women. Women’s desires are selling the product. We have created a culture in which women are so obsessed with appearance that the beauty of other women acts as a motivating device. We aspire to be like the women in magazines, and we want men to desire us as much as they do these golden girls.

Hayes 2

Oleg Gekman |

One of the most disturbing things about the media’s definition of beauty is how it gives a one-dimensional representation of women. Advertisements like the GoDaddy commercials allow women to become commodities to be obtained. These commercials depict women who are, by American standards, exceptionally beautiful. In one particular GoDaddy ad, the woman in the commercial is referred to only as a “GoDaddy girl.” She is never named, and she has no speaking lines. However, she does have plump lips covered in red lipstick and a practically see-through white shirt that covers a fraction of her torso. Across the chest, the shirt reads: “” Without knowing the context of the commercial, one might think that it is an advertisement for a pornography website or some sort of company that sells sex. However, GoDaddy sells Internet domain names: although these have absolutely nothing to do with sex or the female body,  the GoDaddy advertisement suggests that a woman’s value is measured by her body.

1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon scrutiny

My mom is five feet tall. She has a tiny build, and she’s one of the only people I know who can fit into petite sizing almost perfectly. She’s a runner. She runs marathons, half-marathons, 5Ks, 10Ks, and she has participated in four triathlons. She goes to Crossfit every day for an hour in the morning, and for the rest of the day, she enlightens my family with a detailed description of her workout. As much as my mom emphasizes her health and fitness, her obsession and unhealthy relationship with food has set a precedent for the relationship I have with my body. At most meals I eat with my mom, there is a discussion of the amount of nutritional benefit in the meal and maybe a comment about serving size or calorie amount. There is usually some questioning of whether or not I should eat bread or if I should substitute the broccoli for the mashed potatoes. Every meal, every conversation revolves around weight, food, and exercise. The last time I was home, the four members of my family sat down for a spaghetti dinner. Only three of us ate spaghetti. My dear mother had a giant mound of kale drenched in spaghetti sauce. I absolutely admire my mother’s ability to take her health and wellbeing into her own hands; however, it becomes a problem when I am constantly infiltrated by ideas about what a perfect body, meal, or workout is. I understand that her issues are just as significant as mine, but the wall of insecurity is the only obstacle in our otherwise strong relationship.

1 cup flour
1 cup conformity

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Pixelbliss |

This obsession with physical appearance goes far beyond a relationship with food, exercise, and being thin. Women change their bodies to conform to society’s “rules,” and this is not a new phenomenon. For thousands of years in China, women bound their feet to adhere to the standards of beauty defined by their culture. This consisted of breaking bones in the feet of young girls and then wrapping their feet in tightly bound shoes or bandages. Girls were expected to bind their feet between the ages of four and six, when their bones were still considered soft. The “ideal” length of a woman’s foot, after breaking and bending, was three inches. This intense ritual and procedure often caused painful and dangerous infections. In many cases, and without modern technology, these infections led to death. Foot binding was a means for a woman to get a husband in a higher class. Men were said to enjoy smaller feet, as they made a woman look as if she could dance lightly on lotuses. It was a sign of vulnerability, softness, and femininity.

In the African country of Mauritania, women are considered to be more desirable as they gain weight. Before marriage, beginning with pre-adolescence, women and girls are force-fed. “Leblouh,” the word used to describe this forced-feeding, is a necessary tradition for a woman to find a husband. Women are considered to be from wealthier families if they weigh more. In Mauritanian women, force-feeding and the side effects of obesity can cause death. While this practice seems foreign to us in our world, one enveloped by thinness, the excessive eating in Mauritania is comparable to our excessive starving in the US. This unhealthy and even dangerous practice is yet another manifestation of the female body as a commodity. Regardless of whether a woman lives in China, Mauritania, or the US, her worth is constantly being equated with her body, which creates self-destructive habits.

1 cup butter
1 cup self-loathing

Unfortunately, like many other girls, I learned very early on that I shouldn’t accept my body. I was surrounded by women who didn’t love themselves the way they should. I was taught that the extra rolls or jiggles that I carried with me were not what a proper woman should have. I understood that I should be concentrating on my appearance at all times.

As I walk through campus, I can’t help but imagine the thoughts of the people around me. If I get even a glance from someone, I assume they are directing their eyes at my chubby cheeks or the less than flawless stomach hidden under my t-shirt. In the dining hall, I am constantly analyzing and comparing my choices to those of my friends or the thin girls in the corner. In relationships, including the one serious relationship that I have had, my own self-doubt and loathing has caused me to hesitate. I am always on edge. I know that the dissatisfaction I have with my body is the result of a society obsessed with appearance, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real or any less hurtful. The deep-seated notion that thinness equals love, acceptance, intelligence, and aptitude follows me everywhere, a looming shadow.

Hayes 1

kyrzhov |

Featured Image © De Visu |

Throughout my life, I have struggled with body image. In my first year at DU, college proved to be an even more difficult environment to feel comfortable in my own skin. Joining a sorority, being introduced to a slew of new people who were judging me for the first time, and trying to reinvent myself made for a pretty harsh result. When my WRIT professor offered an assignment that gave us free-reign to write about something that touched us personally (and would also have some meaning to the public), I couldn’t think of a more fitting topic than my struggle with body image.

For the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, my mom has been both my adversary and my coach in my battle for self-confidence. I wrote this piece at a time when I was having to deal with all of this on my own for the first time. Being without her added a whole new set of challenges and an opportunity to gain independence. It was difficult, but I learned a lot by writing this piece.

One of the biggest challenges I had in writing this was becoming comfortable with publicizing my biggest insecurity and vulnerability. I think it has helped people from different areas of my life to be able to read this and learn more about me; and it has helped me to regard the subject as less of a taboo. What I really hope to pass on to readers from this paper is the little bit of comfort I obtained from writing it. I hope some can relate and others can build an understanding and appreciation for the constant struggle that some of us face.

Hayes bioOlivia Hayes is a sophomore from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, majoring in public policy and sociology. She is a PR Director for the Roosevelt Institute, a public policy club, and enjoys skiing and playing soccer. She also loves Kid President and Kanye West, although she knows they are two very different people with two very different views of the world. Her favorite quotes are these words of wisdom from Kid President and Kanye: “It is everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance” (Kid President); and “Believe in your flyness” (Kanye).


“11 Facts About Body Image.” Do, 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Gleason, Jamie H., Amy M. Alexander, and Cheryl L. Somers. “Later Adolescents’ Reactions to Three Types of Childhood Teasing: Relations with Self-Esteem and Body Image.” Social Behavior and Personality 28.5 (2000): 471–79. Print.

Han, Chung-hye. “A Comparative Study of Compliment Responses: Korean Females in Korean Interactions and in English Interactions.” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 8.2 (1992): 17–31. Print.

Mapes, Diane. “Why Women are Terrible at Accepting Compliments.” TODAY Health & Wellness. NBC, 1 Jul. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Strochlic, Nina. “China’s Last Foot-Binding Survivors.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast, 2 July 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Warren, Rossalyn. “This is What Happens When Women Actually Accept a Compliment from a Man Online.” BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Wedoud, Mohamed Yahya Abdel. “Women Fight Mauritania’s Fattening Tradition.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System,  12 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.



An Orchestra of Many: How the Colorado Symphony Stays in Tune with the Times

Goetzinger 1

by Brian Casey Goetzinger
WRIT 1133: Writing and Research | Professor Brad Benz

When I was in the third grade, I played violin in my first orchestral concert. The riveting program consisted of such masterpieces as “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” “Up On the Rooftop,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I’d never felt such elation and excitement before. Sure, our intonation was a bit sharp, and we weren’t perfectly together, but playing as a group and creating beautiful music out of thin air was thrilling. Though we weren’t playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I was smitten. I knew that music was going to be something I’d want to pursue for the rest of my life.

As I matured, I played in more and more concerts with orchestras somewhat better than in third grade and went to as many symphony concerts as I could. Going from concert to concert allowed me to experience many different orchestras and start determining what makes an orchestra fabulous and what makes an orchestra slightly meh. I’ve found that it’s the togetherness of the players, the variance of colors and timbres they produce, and, more than anything, the emotional wallop they manage to strike with audiences.

Under those criteria, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is without a doubt one of the greatest symphonies in the US. They play perfectly in tandem, they’ve got a color palate that would make Bob Ross envious, and they’ve walloped me on more occasions than I can count. The CSO, along with almost every other American symphony orchestra, requires dedication to survive and reach its creative and artistic goals—dedication on behalf of its musicians, its donors, and, most importantly, its audiences. This dedication isn’t always easy. Performers have to spend countless hours honing their craft to be offered a position with the CSO. Donors have to dig deep in their pocketbooks to ensure the continued survival of this musical tradition. Audiences have to decide to spend money on tickets and to spend time to see the concerts. But there’s one consolation that the CSO offers to all three: it’s worth it.

As a hopeful future orchestral musician myself, I found this question to be particularly interesting. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory that any skill could be mastered with 10,000 hours of directed practice and referred to it as “the magic number of greatness.” Sure, 10,000 hours seems like an ample amount of time to become a master in any field when given in that giant lump sum. However, on closer inspection— and on a music major’s inspection—that simply doesn’t add up.

Consider this: an average collegiate music major practices three hours a day, six days a week. That amounts to sixty-four hours a month. Seven hundred sixty-eight hours a year. Given that math, it’d take thirteen years of playing to become a master. As a dutiful violinist of twelve years, I’ve put in my fair share of daily hourly practice, and I know I’m nowhere near the mammoth musical and technical abilities required to win a job. I wager that most of my colleagues agree.

“I know it’s going to be a while before I play with an orchestra like the CSO,” said Matt, a fellow violinist at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. “Auditions stress me out. Everyone in school for this all across the world wants the same thing, and there’s only, what—twenty jobs available? Twenty jobs and thousands and thousands of applicants. It’s like the Oscars, only worse. You get paid less.”

Emily, a graduate of the University of Southern California in flute performance, is now living in the daunting world of orchestral auditions. She’s currently auditioning for a position in the South Dakota Symphony and has just passed the résumé round, the only round that can be likened to a regular job interview. The symphony board peruses résumés and throws out any candidate lacking orchestral or performing experience or a slew of awards, scholarships, and appropriate teaching background.

I ask Emily if she’s excited and ready for the audition. “Excited, yes. Ready, God no. There’s only so much practicing you can do before you just wing it and hope for the best.” Given the combination of nerves that creep up in any audition room, she’s not totally wrong. Hands get sweaty. Bodies get shaky. Heartbeats pound. Self-doubt gets magnified to the nth degree. It’s awfully hard to play perfectly and keep absolute rhythmic accuracy under those conditions.

One person who was able to control all this and receive the best possible outcome was Basil Vendryes, the CSO’s current principal violist.

Basil completed his undergraduate studies on the viola at the Eastman School of Music. As a sophomore at Eastman, he landed a position with the Rochester Philharmonic. The musical equivalent of Meryl Streep, Basil casually talks of going from Rochester to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, to the New York Philharmonic, and then to the CSO. Any aspiring young musician knows how globally well-respected these symphony orchestras are and how extremely difficult it is to land a position with them without mammoth determination and talent. Basil is so good, however, he makes it seem easy.

He came to the CSO over twenty years ago, accepting the position of principal (or first chair) viola, one of the highest-ranking positions within the orchestra. Because the CSO ranks as one of the best orchestras in the US, his principal position is all the more impressive.

I ask him about the audition process.

“Well, it was trying. There were very high-level players only. Your playing must display a forthright personality.”

Auditions are like job interviews, only if the pitch of your voice is a millimeter too high, you’re yelled at to stop. Or if the rhythm of your words is a millisecond off, they clap behind a screen and say, “THANKS FOR COMING.

Positions in orchestras like the ones that Basil has played with pop up extremely rarely. Hundreds of players show up, ready to do battle for the coveted job. This competitiveness means that everyone is exceedingly well prepared, and their audition materials are virtually flawless.

“Certainly, there was a lot of talent there, and I suppose a degree of pressure,” Basil says. Ultimately, though, his audition combined the technical perfection required with a certain forthrightness and, let’s admit, the je ne sais quoi that the audition panel was looking for. He won the job.

It’s not always a straight path from music student to performer. Certainly, Matt and Emily exemplify the dedication and drive required to eventually be considered for a symphony like the CSO. But along his path to first chair at the CSO, Basil has had to rely on more than just practice and drive. There were also immense personal and financial costs. He paid airfare to attend auditions. He had to account for the loss of free time as a result of practicing. The physical drain that comes from performing. The emotional toll of losing an audition.

There is also the cost of buying an instrument, which can range anywhere from $15,000 to $500,000 or more. Basil plays on a viola made in 1887 by Carlo Cerruti, and comparable violas for sale at Robertson and Sons, one of the preeminent luthier shops in the US, start at $100,000. The list price isn’t even given, as only extremely dedicated and talented players inquire.

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DeshaCAM |

It is no secret that American symphony orchestras have been through the ringer. The recent recession has stretched symphonic survival to its breaking point. “As people make less and things get more expensive, they get more frugal with their disposable income and entertainment dollars,” Basil explains. Several highly esteemed symphonies have been forced into bankruptcy—the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Symphony, and Syracuse Symphony, to name a few.

And the CSO was very near joining the list as well.

In an article published in Coloradobiz, journalist Cathie Beck states, “In summer 2011, the CSO came close to extinction. With $1.2 million in debt, a cash reserve of $16,000, and a deficit of $650,000, the symphony’s financial crisis provoked an emergency committee meeting.” The meeting determined that if the CSO didn’t restructure its finances, it would face “a high probability of demise within the next two years.” This crisis led to the hiring of a new CEO, Gene Sobczak, who had recently led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra out of a similar bind.

It also led to a 14% pay cut.

This chart, compiled from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), shows base symphony salaries from 2008–2011 (see figure 1). Note the drastic pay cuts to the CSO, which marked a terrifying turning point in the orchestra’s 25-year lifespan.

It takes a certain kind of commitment to your craft and community to take a $6,000 pay cut from an already low-starting salary, but the players’ dedication to both the music and the audience won out. CSO bassist and Lamont faculty member Susan Cahill had this to say about the 2011 pay cuts: “There is a long road yet to sustainability, but we the musicians believe we made huge sacrifices along the way to ensure that Colorado has a top-rated, world-class, full-time professional symphony orchestra.”

Goetzinger chart

In an article from the Journal of Cultural Economics, Jonathan Munn and Lawrence Tamburri describe in detail the various methods of funding American symphony orchestras, saying, “Orchestras have four principle sources of revenue as follows: earned income, private contributions, endowment funds, and government support.” With government subsidies being cut left and right during the recession, it’s no surprise that orchestras relied on alternative sources of income to make it out on the other end.

Creative programming to bring in audiences became one such source. And yet, an orchestra’s repertoire is also its main literature, its bread and butter. It is what the players spend hours practicing and what the audience hopefully spends its money on. Audience members often have strong preferences towards specific pieces, composers, and types of music, and this partiality is what gets them to the hall. Think about it this way—most wouldn’t show up to a Taylor Swift concert if they were expecting her to sing only KISS songs. They go with an expectation of what they’re going to hear. Similarly, the CSO is able to attract Brahms fans, Broadway enthusiasts, and contemporary music lovers alike by programming different types of music to appeal to everyone.

The Standard Repertoire Index (SRI) shows that a certain group of composers—including Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak—dominate the concert halls year after year. Much like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” these pieces are all so familiar with American audiences that they’ve entered the next level of musical recognition: the subconscious. Even by simply reading bum-bum-bum-BUUUUUM, bum-bum-bum-BUUUUUUUM, they can hear the opening of Beethoven’s 5th in their heads. But do audiences want something else?

Musicologist Tina K. Ramnarine further unpacks the tightrope between audience expectation and orchestral reality in her article “The Orchestration of Civil Society.” She says, “In an era in which the social relevance of the institution has come into question, orchestras are addressing charges of elitism and shaping agendas in everyday attempts to provide access, foster community, and promote innovative programs.” The CSO faces the problem that many orchestras face: program more adventurous new music and lose old, tested and true audiences, or continue programming old and established—and some would classify, as Ramnarine, “elitist”—pieces and risk not attracting new audiences.

Basil explains:

When you talk about the differences between the NY Phil or the San Francisco Symphony and the CSO, I daresay our orchestra is potentially the most diverse, flexible orchestra in the United States. Most of those orchestras do not do the varied amount of repertoire or genre that we do so often. It really is a testament to my colleagues.

Playing new genres of orchestral repertoire each week speaks to the diversity of patronage attracted by the CSO and the diversity of their musical tastes. “We try and appeal to everybody. We try to—on a very slim budget—find ways to accommodate all the different kinds of patrons so we satisfy our audience, and they will support us in kind.”

And so the CSO has had to find ways to attract not only big donors, but an increasingly diverse group of donors too. This new group is the kind that the CSO has targeted with recent cannabis-friendly programs and private fundraisers: the liberal millennial. In his article “Debussy, Wine, and B.Y.O.M.,” Jack Healy discusses the relaxed mood at a 2014 fundraiser for the CSO, describing how people would “toke up outside” and listen to music inside. Evan Lasky, the CSO’s chief operating officer, downplayed the move, saying that, “For us, it’s just another fundraiser.”

Basil, who also sits on the CSO’s Board of Trustees, knows first-hand the necessity of large-scale donors and benefactors to the survival of the orchestra. “We have events that we bring them to, we might offer perks—if you give this much money, you get a backstage pass to visit Yo-Yo Ma. But when I give money to the Cancer Society, it’s because I believe in the research. So we do what we can to give donors bang for their buck, but the biggest thing we can give them—especially from my chair—is the music.”

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Ultra 5280 |

The Denver community is lucky to have such an amazing orchestral institution so nearby playing such incredible and varied pieces on a weekly basis. When asked why he supports the CSO, aspiring violinist Matt said, “It’s a great cultural resource and one of the few events where you go, sit, listen, and learn without distractions or cell phones. Why wouldn’t you support a diverse organization that works together to deliver a superior product to inspire and inform people?” Flautist Emily added, “There’s something we need in music; it fulfills something that really nothing else can. I mean, it’s been around forever, and I can’t imagine dedicating my life to anything else.”

Playing in a symphony orchestra requires an immense amount of cooperation and teamwork. If you’re in an orchestra of a hundred players, and you are the one responsible for its success or failure, you feel a certain responsibility to live up to the expectations of those around you.

In a way, the orchestral performance is a microcosm for the survival of the symphony orchestra as a whole. A harmonious grouping of musicians, donors, and audiences is extremely vital to the continuation of the beautiful, centuries-old tradition of symphony orchestras, as participation in any of the roles activities requires immense dedication. The musicians are the string section, with their beautiful, lush, collective abilities on full display. The donors are the brass and woodwinds, individually supplementing the orchestra with solos and assured confidence of its success. The audience is the percussion, their thunderous applause mimicking snare drum rolls and timpani thuds.

And in a way, the audience is the backbone of the orchestra. Think about it: you attend the performance with the musicians, you dress just as fancily as they do when you go, you love the music, and you are just as necessary to the survival of the orchestra as the musicians are. Without you, who are we playing for? The conductor might as well give you the baton cues right with the orchestra, as you are just as important to this community out there in the dark concert hall as those he cues in the limelight. You just have a slightly easier audition process—and that’s simply buying a ticket.

Featured Image © Ultra 5280 |

I wrote this essay in response to a class assignment asking me to explore the value systems and practices of a subculture I was not directly involved in. My choice of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra seemed obvious, as I’m a violinist myself, and a bona fide mega-fan of the organization. I also felt that the world of orchestral playing can be enigmatic to those not directly involved with it—the monarchic relationship between the musicians and the conductor, the oligarchic relationship of the musicians amongst themselves, the codependency of musicians and the audience, and the ever-changing relationship between the musicians and the repertoire they play.

This essay also examines how an artistic organization can either thrive, adapt, or fail during times of economic stress, which opened my eyes to the CSO’s particularly compelling narrative during the recent recession. As a writer of mostly personal essays and anecdotes, I found this especially fun to write, as it allowed me to focus on something more disconnected from myself, all the while using my knowledge of orchestral performing as context.

Goetzinger bioBrian Casey Goetzinger is a first year graduate student from Rapid City, South Dakota. He enjoys reading, writing, violining, composing, amateur spelunking, and pacing. And, bonus: he’s ticklish.

Black Blood: Reckoning with Alaska’s Oil Dependency


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bikeriderlondon |

by Kengo Nagaoka
WRIT 1733: Honors Writing | Professor Doug Hesse

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is the aorta of the state of Alaska. Eight hundred miles long and 48 inches wide, the steel artery stretches from the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay on the northernmost edge of the state down to the Valdez Marine Terminal on the southern coast of Alaska’s mainland. Inside, the pipeline’s thick black blood courses steadily southward, taking two weeks to travel from the Beaufort Sea to Prince William Sound, where it is piped into huge tankers and shipped to refineries on America’s west coast. Twelve pump stations, the “hearts,” push the blood as it crosses 34 major rivers and three mountain ranges on the journey through icy tundra, boreal forest, and temperate rainforest.1

The oil keeps Alaska alive, and Alaska loves it.

Nagaoka 4

Ann Glenn |

When I was a child, my parents would drive visitors 15 minutes from our home in Fairbanks to the pipeline. At this popular tourist spot, visitors would get out of the car and smile at the steel tube, read the placard about it, touch it, and take photos with it. It’s a monument, a place of pilgrimage, a living piece of Alaskan history. The pipeline gets its own section in all tourist pamphlets for Fairbanks.

There is little debate as to why it has so many fans. Completed in 1977 after three years of construction, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was, at the time, the largest privately funded construction project in the world. Vigorous development was triggered after drillers found one of the most promising oil reserves in North America below Alaska’s North Slope in 1967.2 Workers swarmed to Fairbanks, a strategic place at the middle of the pipeline’s route. The construction of the pipeline itself involved over 70,000 people in a state that only had 348,000 people at the start of 1974, transforming a struggling gold rush state into a modern economic and scientific powerhouse.3 For fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Alaska Department of Revenue Commissioner estimated that about 75% of state general fund revenue would be from oil “production taxes, petroleum property taxes, corporate income taxes, and royalties.”4,5 On average, from FY 2005 to 2014, that figure has been 90%.6 This money fuels Alaska’s infrastructure, schools, transportation, health services, and universities.7 Thanks to oil revenue, my state is the only state in the Union that doesn’t have a state personal income tax or sales tax.8 Ever since oil started flowing through the pipeline, the economic activity and revenue generated by the oil industry has provided sustenance to Alaska, allowing us to enjoy modern middle-class living like the rest of the country. Alaska owes big time to its black gold.

Nagaoka 2

JLS Photography |

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It was 2010, and I was just about to cross the finish line of one of my cross-country ski races. I was a freshman in high school and was probably close to last place. As I panted and tried to squeeze the last drops of energy from my muscles, I looked up. Above the finish line was a broad white banner serenading my efforts. It read “Flint Hills Resources” in a tidy serif font.

Only years later would I learn that Flint Hills Resources owns a huge oil refinery east of Fairbanks and is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the largest petrochemicals corporation in the United States and the second largest private company in the country.9 But this kind of banner is not uncommon in Fairbanks. ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (the company that maintains Alaska’s pipeline), along with Flint Hills, are common names because we see them everywhere: on TV commercials, in the newspaper, on flyers for community events, on awards and scholarships, in the mail, and at sports games. In August 2010, I saw hundreds of people at our annual Tanana Valley State Fair sporting BP knapsacks passed out at the entrance gates, a mere month after the company’s Deepwater Horizon spill had finally been capped. BP’s yellow and green sunflower logo has become for me as recognizable as McDonald’s golden arches.

These logos meant nothing to me as a little kid growing up in Fairbanks. I was born there in 1996, in a town of about 32,000, to first-generation Japanese immigrant parents.10

Fairbanks does have a McDonald’s. It’s got several, actually. But the closest Target or Olive Garden is a 360-mile drive south to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. At first glance, you’d never guess that Fairbanks is an oil town. It’s a place that prides itself on family-owned roadside bagel stands and backyard gardens. Fairbanksans love their personal property, their snow machines, and their own opinions. We like to think of ourselves as independent. “I’ve always thought of Fairbanks as an island,” says my friend Dylan.11

I was naturally a pretty quiet kid. During my first year of preschool, I actually did not speak a word in class. My teacher was visibly excited when she recognized me, 13 years later, when I yelled out her order number at an ice cream place I was working at in town. I had become a much more vocal person in those years. By senior year, I was leading a small jazz ensemble that played professionally around town. Music turned into my greatest passion. Considering the size of the place, Fairbanks was a great town to develop my musicianship. The University of Alaska Fairbanks music program, Fairbanks Youth Orchestras, and organizations like the Fairbanks Concert Association fueled my desire to hear and play music. My teachers were phenomenal, encouraging me to get more involved and pursue music making opportunities around town and in the state, most of which were funded by sponsorships from oil companies. The local music scene itself was diverse and welcoming, and my parents told me to pursue what I enjoyed most. The skills I learned on the drum set in my high school jazz band eventually led me to earn a spot at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver (DU) as a Jazz Studies major in 2014.

∗  ∗  ∗

I was sitting with a friend at a restaurant near DU on May 1, 2015 when my phone buzzed with a text message.

“What is it?” my friend asked.

I stared at the phone.

“My high school jazz band just got cut.”

I had known that Alaska was facing budget problems. During my junior year of high school, I had testified in front of my school board, urging them to preserve the district’s music programs in the face of a shrinking budget. Every year, rumors went around about which teachers were going to get laid off and what government programs were going to be cut. It was always about reduction, never expansion. In April 2015, all public school music teachers, art teachers, and counselors in Fairbanks got a “doubtful status” notice in their mailbox. But it didn’t really hit home for me until my own high school jazz band was gone, just like that, because of budget constraints. I had been reassuring myself, until that point, that my hometown would be okay in the face of economic pressure. When something that had meant so much to me throughout my four years in high school was cut, I had to reexamine what was happening.

Government revenue and spending is complicated, but in this case, there was an overarching cause. I learned that the TAPS is suffering from severe low blood pressure. And the symptoms are showing up everywhere. Oil flow through the pipeline peaked on January 14, 1988 at 2.1 million barrels per day. Today, only about 560,000 barrels per day reach Valdez.12 Oil flow has slowed down so much that the time it takes for the liquid to travel from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez has almost tripled from 4.5 to 14 days.13 Pipeline engineers are trying to figure out how to deal with low oil flow, which has the risk, among other problems, of creating wax and ice buildup inside the pipeline. “We can’t tell you what the end date of the pipeline is. We believe we can operate down to 300,000 barrels a day, maybe less than that. But it’s going to take some significant investment,” explains Mike Joyner, Senior Vice President of Alyeska’s operation division.14

It’s not just because oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay are running out. Oil production has been declining for decades. State officials estimate there are about 5.16 billion barrels left for recovery under the North Slope, compared to 15 billion barrels already sent down the pipeline by 2006.15,16 Despite this fact, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the east and the National Petroleum Reserve on the west remain closed to development.17 With safety and environmental concerns driving more regulation of the oil industry, companies are finding it harder to obtain permits to develop existing infrastructure or to drill exploratory wells and more expensive to carry out business as usual. Demand for oil is also decreasing steadily because of greater energy efficiency and investment in renewables. In 2013, more megawatts of renewable energy capacity were added per year than oil, coal, and natural gas combined.18 But these factors only aggravate the most recent issue: oil prices that were at $110 per barrel in June 2014 have plummeted to around $60 per barrel in May 2015.19 The oil industry is in a bad place.

The trouble this is causing Alaska is immense. It doesn’t end with jazz band being cut. With 75% of state general fund revenue dependent on oil royalties in FY 2015, the Alaska State Legislative Finance Division estimates a deficit of $3.4 billion for this year.20 With current oil production, the Division’s budget director claims oil prices would have to be $130 a barrel to balance the current budget.21 Unable to pass a balanced budget for FY 2015, state legislators called two special sessions to confront the issue. Talks of tapping into the Constitutional Budget Reserve and the Permanent Fund, the state’s savings accounts, have been circulating.22 Layoff notices were mailed to 10,000 government employees on June 1, as political gridlock resulting from budget debates brought the possibility of a government shutdown in July closer.23 “I’ve heard some grizzled Alaska political observers lament they haven’t seen it so bad since 1981. I’ve heard some say it’s never been this bad, ever,” State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins from southeast Alaska observes.24

On February 4, 2014, Flint Hills Resources, the same name I saw on the ski race banner years ago, announced it was going to close its refinery next to Fairbanks because of difficult economic conditions.25 For years, the refinery had been siphoning oil from the pipeline and producing gasoline, jet fuel, and heating fuel, as well as products such as asphalt, for local areas. The closure meant the loss of 80 high-paying jobs and the loss of the fourth largest taxpayer in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.26 It created an uncertain future for Fort Wainright and Eielson Air Force Base, both of which bring people and substantial business to Fairbanks but rely on cheap jet fuel produced at Flint Hills. The company isn’t the only one that’s downsizing in Alaska. In 2014, BP announced it would be laying off about 475 employees statewide, selling assets, and reducing its footprint in the state, as well as withdrawing its $20,000 sponsorship of Fairbanks’s Midnight Sun Festival, one of the town’s largest annual events.27 The downsizing also meant my good friend Dylan had to move out of state our senior year of high school. He had moved up to Alaska in 8th grade with his mother, who had a job with Koch Industries. “We tried to get our mom to jump ship with [Flint Hills] and go work at the refinery in Kenai for Tesoro so that we could stay in Alaska,” he told me. “But she said there wasn’t much of a prospect there…it was killer.”28

I was watching my town and my state face insurmountable economic pressures, and the effects were hitting closer and closer to home. Former Alaska Governor Sean Parnell stated simply, “We need more oil for that pipeline.”29

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Nagaoka 3

photo by Yong Jung Cho

On May 16, I stood in front of a Shell gas station a mile from DU holding up a big cardboard sign that said, “MORE OIL IS NOT THE ANSWER.” I was wearing my green “Alaska Grown” hoodie. About 15 others were with me: friends, environmentalists, social activists, hippies, and all of the above from my school. We fought to hold our signs against the wind and rain, signs that shouted: “HANDS OFF THE ARCTIC!”, “KILL THE DRILL!”, “SHELL NO!”, and “CLIMATE JUSTICE!” There was one that said bluntly, “POLAR BEARS.” It was rush hour. Some people stared silently or pretended not to see us. A middle finger was thrown our way. People filling their cars with gas behind us stared with open mouths and squinted eyes. But there also was the occasional loud honk, smiling old woman, or car full of screaming, supportive college kids our age.

One woman rolled down her window with a puzzled look.

My friend Nick Stubler yelled, “Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean!” She immediately punched her car horn.

“Are you really ‘Alaska Grown’?” The girl next to me pointed at my hoodie.

“Yeah,” I said. “This one hits pretty close to home for me.”

“Absolutely,” nodded a grizzled-looking man as he passed me on the sidewalk, pointing at my sign.

Sometimes I’m not always so sure. Along with Nick, I’m a part of the student group Divest DU. We’re working to get the university to stop investing its endowment in fossil fuel companies and re-invest in more sustainable energy initiatives. We’re part of the huge international divestment movement, made up of colleges, institutions, funds, and companies that have divested from fossil fuels or are trying to. That’s usually the three-sentence summary I give while tabling and talking to people about what we do. There’s a whole list of reasons we’re fighting for divestment: climate change, rising sea levels, environmental destruction, social justice, financial stability, the moral responsibility of universities, and more. The movement is built on the idea that through divestment, we can take away the social license of fossil fuel companies and stigmatize them as they continue to be the primary perpetrators of global climate change. As of September 2015, educational institutions, businesses, governments, and individuals have pledged to divest over $2.6 trillion from fossil fuels.30 Divest DU believes that the university should not be profiting from climate destruction. And since student scholarships come from income generated by investing the endowment, nor should we. It’s a cause I can say I truly believe in.

But always in the back of my mind is my hometown in Alaska, a state built on the world’s demand for oil and the presence of huge multinational corporations like BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil. It pains me to think that proposing fossil fuel divestment for the University of Alaska system would be preposterous. Always in the back of my mind is that broad white banner with “Flint Hills Resources” on it at the finish line. Always in the back of my mind are my jazz band and my high school, fueled by the state government’s oil revenue. When I visit the homepage of the Fairbanks Concert Association, which has brought hundreds of musicians and performers up to Fairbanks and has inspired me so much, I see ConocoPhillips, BP, Flint Hills, and Alyeska at the top of the sponsor list.31 I’ve personally received $20,480 from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which invests oil revenue for a profit that is distributed to all Alaska residents each year as a dividend. That’s $81,920 for my entire family of four since 2000, when we started getting the yearly check.32 I can never escape the fact that my life in Alaska was defined, directed, and funded by oil. I can’t say Alaska owes big time to oil without admitting I do too.

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The last time oil prices tanked, Fairbanks lost its downtown. The Polaris Building, the tallest building in Fairbanks, now stands still and empty in what was once the heart of the economic boom caused by the construction of the TAPS. Built in 1952, the Polaris Building used to house a thriving hotel and restaurant. It’s now home to black mold that creeps up its crumbling walls and moss an inch thick on its floors.33 The rest of downtown Fairbanks looks a bit better, but not by much. Old buildings not renovated since the 50s crowd the streets, and failed or failing businesses are a common sight. Tourists are everywhere, but not many Fairbanksans would say, “Let’s go have some fun downtown!” At night, the bright glow of yellowish-blue halogens light the streets, presumably to deter crime and help police spot drunks.

In early 1986, oil prices crashed. Even though world oil consumption was declining, in late 1985, Saudi Arabia aggressively started increasing production, and in response the rest of the OPEC countries did the same.34 Crude oil prices fell from $23 per barrel in December 1985 to less than $10 per barrel in July the next year (non-inflation adjusted).35 In Alaska, state general fund revenues were cut in half over two years, from $4.1 billion in 1984 to $2.1 billion in 1988.36 Nine out of 12 Alaskan banks failed, business and property values fell, and thousands of jobs were lost.37 Unemployment hit a high of 11.5%, and between 1986 and 1988, about 35,000 people left Alaska to find jobs elsewhere.38 That’s more people than the current population of the city of Fairbanks. In the decades following the crash, oil prices eventually recovered, and so did Alaska, but downtown Fairbanks was left a dead spot. These days, Alaska Governor Bill Walker cautions we need to be careful with the budget so that “we don’t create the tailspin we saw in the 80s.”39

I don’t want my high school, my house, or any building in Fairbanks to end up like the Polaris Building. Alaska is no stranger to boom-and-bust economic cycles. After all, modern Alaskan history starts with the discovery of gold in the territory and the huge influx of people and capital that followed. However, the State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy argues the recent budget crisis is not just another bout of the boom-and-bust cycle, but part of a larger trend of a widening fiscal gap that the state will have to face for decades to come.40 We desperately need some way to sustain Alaska.

Reduced to the simplest terms, there are two options: more oil or something else. The Arctic Ocean holds an estimated 34 billion barrels of crude oil that could be accessed by offshore drilling initiatives like Royal Dutch Shell’s, which I protested in May.41 In April 2015, both chambers of the Alaska State Legislature overwhelmingly approved a joint resolution urging Washington state officials to stop interfering with Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. Simply building a port for Shell in Alaska would generate 500 to 700 jobs, they claimed.42 Additionally, ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve, which sandwich Prudhoe Bay, could be opened for oil and natural gas development. These projects could fix the TAPS’s blood pressure problem.

But Alaska’s problem is not the issue of too little oil in the pipeline. It’s way bigger. It’s our complete dependency on the black blood that currently supports our entire economy. Encouraging more oil development will entrench us deeper in our oil dependence. It means giving oil prices a license to throw our state around. If Alaska keeps holding on to oil as its savior, it will follow oil on its path downward.

Fossil fuels are not our future. Alaska lives in a world where renewable energy development has already eclipsed fossil fuel energy, and activists and governments alike are halting the progress of oil, natural gas, and coal projects that aren’t already hindered by economic pressures. In 2012, scientists estimated we could release about 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and stay within a “safe” level of global warming. And the world’s oil, natural gas, and coal companies own enough fossil fuels in reserves to release 2,795 gigatons of CO2 if they are allowed to continue their usual business.43 As we realize the effects of burning fossil fuel on our climate, we also need to realize that betting our livelihood on new oil exploration outside of Prudhoe Bay is like chaining ourselves to an already sinking ship. Shell’s license to drill in the Arctic may seem like a good chance to make the pipeline healthy again, but ultimately it will make it even more challenging to end our relationship with oil when we really need to.

“Unfortunately, there is no simple solution,” explains the State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. “There is no single resource that can fill the huge role [oil] has played in funding state government.”44 Therefore, Alaska has to aggressively diversify its economy and revise its public and private tax structures to cope with this transition as soon as possible. Alaska has to heavily push economic development in its fisheries, mining operations, and tourism industry. We have to pursue projects that add value to already existing industries, like “fish processing plants, […] aluminum reduction, server farms, and dairy farming.”45 We need to create a profitable business environment that will appeal to non-fossil fuel companies. This means investing in infrastructure and transportation and “low-cost energy […] for the Interior and rural communities where economic activity is hamstrung by the cost of fuel.”46 The state will likely have to impose a personal income tax and sales tax for the first time in decades. According to rough estimates, we could add about $1.8 billion to general fund revenue with the steep rates of 5.6% for an income tax and 7% for a sales tax.47 We need to restructure tax law on oil, gas, coal, and mining so that more money stays in-state. Money from yearly revenues and Alaska’s reserves alike need to be used to transition the state to more sustainable industries.

But more than anything, we need ideas. Alaskans—from the women and men sitting in the state’s legislative chambers to high school freshmen in their Alaska Studies classes—need to initiate serious conversations about how our state will look in a post-fossil fuel world. “We can’t be complacent like the frog in the pot of boiling water,” says Scott Goldsmith, Professor of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “We need to jump out before it’s too late and become proactive in the creation of our own future.”48 This dialogue has already started, but it needs more momentum and participation. On June 5, Governor Walker and his cabinet hosted a weekend-long convention at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, called “Building a Sustainable Future: Conversations With Alaskans,” to address the state’s economic future. “Self-determination was at the heart of our quest for Statehood. Alaskans wanted to control the future of this state,” explained Walker in a Facebook post. “Once again, Alaska is at a decision point. With oil revenue alone unable to sustain us, how do we chart a new course?”49 The convention gathered more than 200 leaders from around the state to “empower participants” through education and conversation so they could “return home and host their own community discussions.50, 51

Governor Walker’s convention was a step forward in advancing calls to implement a state income tax and carefully use the Permanent Fund’s earning reserves to close the state’s fiscal gap. And there was a lot of hope contained in those three days. “The challenges are obvious. The opportunities might be less clear,” Walker stated. “The first opportunity I see is an opportunity to tap Alaskans’ collective wisdom and ingenuity.”52 He added, “Through teamwork and respect for the voices of all Alaskans, we can develop the best solutions.”53 This sentiment was echoed by others as well. “Alaskans are a resilient and resourceful people, and can rise to meet the challenge facing them in the twilight of oil’s dominance,” said the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.54 There was also a call for cooperation across political boundaries. “If there’s a lasting image to come out of this two days, it’s of Mr. Republican Jack Coghill and a liberal Democrat, Vic Fischer, coming arm in arm together,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Brian Rogers, addressing two original Alaska Constitution authors who were in the audience.55

But behind this optimism is the reality that we have a lot of work to do to see the future we want for Alaska.

Nagaoka 7

Rose Ellet |

A few weeks ago, my friend Tristan Glowa, who works for the divestment campaign at Yale University, went to a Q&A session with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. He submitted a question about how Alaska should move forward in diversifying its economy in the face of the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. As Murkowski started reading Tristan’s question off the slip of paper, she paused and picked out another one from the pile. Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts in our state legislature push for more oil and gas development, with the topic of economic restructuring away from fossil fuels completely off the table. Our leaders are scared to confront this issue. Shifting this dialogue is the first step in many to achieving a sustainable Alaska.

Any transition away from oil will result in great personal sacrifices for all Alaskans. Goldsmith proposes that “the transition to a post-Prudhoe economy is the biggest challenge Alaska will face in the next 10 years.”56 Nothing will likely be able to provide the state government with as much revenue as oil. Therefore, the transition may mean more budget cuts, more loss of jobs, and more expensive living for the sake of a smaller, more sustainable Alaska. But I want the best possible long-term future for my state, and I don’t see more oil being part of the equation.

I am an environmentalist who was raised on oil money. But I’ve begun to realize that it’s useless to feel inhibited by the contradictions between my passion for climate justice and the benefits I’ve received from oil in Alaska. I feel frustration more than anything, and the need to take action immediately. My state was born out of oil development, but now it’s at the mercy of the oil industry. As my friend Tristan argues, “Just because the system I live in unavoidably relies on fossil fuels doesn’t mean that’s the future I am working to create.”57 We’re at a turning point in Alaska’s history where we need to make the extremely difficult decision to end our long relationship with the oil industry. I stand by what I wrote on the cardboard sign I held in front of the Shell gas station: “MORE OIL IS NOT THE ANSWER.”

Slowly, the tide is turning. A few months after our protest at the Shell station, the oil giant announced it would abandon Arctic drilling for “the foreseeable future.”58 And the amount of money that institutions around the world have committed to divest from fossil fuels in the fall of 2015—$2.6 trillion—is 50 times the amount pledged at the same time in 2014.59 Even my high school jazz band seems to have been resurrected for the time being because of the letters of support school administrators received from parents. These are victories, but there are many more battles to be won.

I’m envisioning a different future. I want a future where Fairbanks can be as independent as it wants to be, and where fairgoers don’t have the BP sunflower emblazoned on their backs. I want a future where the entire state isn’t thrown into crisis whenever the price of oil wavers. I want a future that’s not tied to a single commodity. I want our kids to be able to take classes without the fear that their teachers won’t be around anymore. I want future generations of Alaskans to applaud us for taking the first steps away from a failing industry and toward a sustainable state. I want Alaskans to be able to look at the black blood in our pipeline as history, not a lifeline.

Nagaoka 6

Sam Chadwick |

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The Trans-Alaska Pipeline used to be the aorta of the state of Alaska. Eight hundred miles long and 48 inches wide, the steel artery stretches from the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay on the northernmost edge of the state down to the Valdez Marine Terminal on the southern coast of Alaska’s mainland. Inside, there is nothing. My grandchildren run around the now-overgrown parking lot where my parents once took visitors to see the pipeline, knocking on the tube and smiling at the ringing, hollow sound that it makes.

Featured Image © Anita Ritenour |

It wasn’t until my first year at DU that I became very engaged in the issue of global climate change. Since I was little, I have always had an appreciation for nature and preserving the environments I was in. Throughout high school, I worked on recycling and air quality issues in my hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska. During my first year in college, I joined Divest DU, a student organization committed to combatting climate change by urging the university to divest, or withdraw investments, from fossil fuel stocks. The people I met through this organization educated me on the urgency and scale of climate change, its ties to social justice issues, and the inspiring ways in which people were coming together to fight what I believe is the most massive and overarching injustice of our generation.

But my mind always wandered back to Alaska, a place completely dependent on oil revenue…the home that I was born and raised in.

The basis for the structure of this essay came from a book we read in my Honors Writing course. In her book Full Body Burden, Kristen Iversen tells the story of the Rocky Flats Nuclear facility in Colorado while narrating her own childhood growing up beside the plant. Eventually, these threads coalesce into a single story. We read this book around the same time I started to hear about a serious budget shortfall that Alaska was facing the coming year due to low oil prices. Memories about my interactions with oil money growing up in Alaska flooded me. I decided to use a similar structure as Full Body Burden to bring together the two stories I wanted to tell.

Nagaoka bio
Kengo Nagaoka is a second-year Jazz Studies major at the Lamont School of Music and a Leadership Studies minor with the Pioneer Leadership Program. Kengo was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and spends most of his free time playing drums, writing music, and exploring outside. One of his favorite things to do is to get dusty with his suite-mates.


1 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. “Trans Alaska Pipeline System: The Facts.” Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, 2013. PDF file.

2 Alaska History and Cultural Studies. Modern Alaska: Oil Discovery and Development in Alaska. Alaska Humanities Forum, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

3 The State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Research and Analysis Section. “Annual Components of Population Change for Alaska, 1945 to 2014.” The State of Alaska, 2014. Microsoft Excel file.

4 The State of Alaska Department of Revenue Commissioner’s Office. “Spring 2015 Forecast Adjusts Revenue to Reflect Lower Oil Prices.” The State of Alaska Department of Revenue, 3 April 2015. PDF file.

5 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Revenue. Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

6 Knapp, Gunnar. “The Most Important Things to Understand About Alaska’s Fiscal Situation.” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, Jan. 2015. PDF file.

7 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Spending. Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

8 State of Alaska, House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Revenue.

9 Murphy, Andrea. “America’s Largest Private Companies 2014.” Forbes, 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 May 2015.

10 The State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Research & Analysis Section. Alaska Local and Regional Information. Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Research, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

11 Smock, Dylan. Personal interview. 17 May 2015.

12 ConocoPhillips Alaska. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). ConocoPhillips Company, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

13 Murphy, Kim. “ALASKA OIL: Flow Has Slowed Through Pipeline.” Sunday Gazette [Charleston, WV], 15 Aug. 2010. ProQuest. Web. 26 May 2015.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. “Trans Alaska Pipeline System.”

17 Murphy, K. “ALASKA OIL.”

18 Randall, Tom. “Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables: This is the Beginning of the End.” Bloomberg Business, 14 April 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

19 Nasdaq. Crude Oil: WTI (NYMEX) Price. Barchart Market Data Solutions, 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

20 Knapp. “The Most Important Things.”

21 Associated Press. “By the Numbers: Alaska Budget Debate, Attempts to Fix It.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 07 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

22 Forgey, Pat. “Is the Permanent Fund the Solution to Alaska’s Budget Gridlock?” Alaska Dispatch News, 20 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

23 Herz, Nathaniel. “House Bipartisan Budget Deal Appears to be Dead on Arrival in the Senate.” Alaska Dispatch News. 30 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

24 Kreiss-Tomkins, Jonathan. “Ugh.” [Email], 6 March 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

25 Cole, Dermot. “In a Blow to Fairbanks, Flint Hills Says It Will Close Down North Pole Refinery.” Alaska Dispatch News, 04 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 May 2015.

26 Ibid.

27 Buxton, Matt. “BP No Longer Sponsoring Fairbanks Midnight Sun Festival.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 28 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

28 Smock. Personal interview.

29 Murphy. “ALASKA OIL.”

30 Visser, Nick. “The World Has Pledged To Divest $2.6 Trillion From Fossil Fuels.” Huffington Post, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

31 Fairbanks Concert Association. Sponsor List. Fairbanks Concert Association, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

32 The State of Alaska Department of Revenue Permanent Fund Dividend Division. Historical Summary of Dividend Applications and Payments. The State of Alaska, 31 December 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

33 Caldwell, Suzanna. “Fairbanks’ Empty, Decaying Polaris Building Looking for Love.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 24 April 2011. Web. 26 May 2015.

34 US Energy Information Administration. Petroleum Chronology of Events 1970–2000. US Department of Energy, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

35 Ibid.

36 Alaska History and Cultural Studies, Modern Alaska.

37 Ibid.

38 Associated Press. “Alaska Faces Tough Decisions, Drastic Budget Cuts, Dipping into Savings as Oil Prices Plunge.” Fox Business, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

39 Gutierrez, Alexandra. “Governor’s New Budget Cuts 300 State Employees.” Alaska Public Media, 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

40 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. What is a Fiscal Gap? Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

41 Fessler, David. “The Pros and Cons of Arctic Oil Drilling (And Why We Should Start Now).” Investment U [The Oxford Club], 15 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

42 The Office of Senator Giessel. “Legislature Urges Seattle to Stop Blocking Alaska’s Economic Development.” Alaska Senate Majority, 19 April 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

43 McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

44 House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy, What is a Fiscal Gap?

45 Goldsmith, Scott. “Alaska’s Petroleum Industry: Transformative, But is it Sustainable?” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, April 2011. PDF file.

46 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial. “Population Wobble Worrisome: Decline Not Portent of Disaster, But State Needs to Pay Attention and Act.” Fairbanks Daily News Miner. 13 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

47 House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy, What is a Fiscal Gap?

48 Goldsmith. “Alaska’s Petroleum Industry.”

49 Walker, Bill. “Self-determination was at the heart of our quest for Statehood. Alaskans wanted to control the future of this state. Once again, Alaska is at a decision point. With oil revenue alone unable to sustain us, how do we chart a new course?” [Facebook post], 6 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

50 Cole, Dermot, and Nathaniel Herz. “Fairbanks Fiscal Cram Session Leads to New Focus on Revenue, Spending, Services.” Alaska Dispatch News. 7 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

51 The State of Alaska Governor Bill Walker, Building a Sustainable Future: Conversations with Alaskans. The State of Alaska, n.d. Web. 8 June 2015.

52 Walker, Bill. “Building a Sustainable Future.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 31 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

53 The State of Alaska Governor Bill Walker, Walker Kicks Off Dialogue On Fiscal Future. The State of Alaska, 4 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

54 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial. “Population Wobble Worrisome.”

55 Cole & Herz. “Fairbanks Fiscal Cram Session.”

56 Goldsmith, Scott. “High Oil Prices Give Alaskans a Second Chance: How Will We Use this Opportunity?” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, Sept. 2011. PDF file.

57 Glowa, Tristan. “So it’s pretty inarguable that we need to transition to a clean energy economy rapidly if we don’t want to be screwed by climate change. Obviously, as an Alaskan, I depend on oil given that it’s funded my life here. Just because the system I live in unavoidably relies on fossil fuels doesn’t mean that’s the future I am working to create (which is a question of political economy, not individual purchases). Does that make sense?” [Facebook comment], 20 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

58 Macalister, Terry. “Shell Abandons Alaska Arctic Drilling.” The Guardian, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

59 Visser. “The World Has Pledged To Divest.”