TIME Culture

The Long American Tradition of Not Feeling Particularly Thankful for Thanksgiving

Clay model of Pilgrim figure with turkey and axe on a white background
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If you’re someone who feels a sense of angst, foreboding, or misery about this time of year, take heart: American history is on your side

Do you have complicated feelings about Thanksgiving? Maybe your ancestors were among this continent’s indigenous peoples, and you have good reason to be rankled by thoughts of newly arrived English colonists feasting on Wamapanoag-procured venison, roasted wild turkey, and stores of indigenous corn. Or maybe Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season that brings with it the intricate emotional challenges of memory, home, and family.

If you’re someone who feels a sense of angst, foreboding, or misery about this time of year, take heart: American history is on your side.

The truth of our history is that only a small minority of the early English emigrants to this country would have been celebrating as the New England Puritans did at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

A thousand miles south, in Virginia and the Carolinas, the mood and the menu would have been drastically different — had there ever been a Thanksgiving there. Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant in the Virginia colony during the 1620s, wrote in a letter: “Since I came out of the ship, I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is, water gruel).”

And don’t imagine for a second that those peas Frethorne was gobbling down were of the lovely, tender green garden variety dotted with butter. No, in the 1620s, Frethorne and his friends would have subsisted on a grey field pea resembling a lentil.

“As for deer or venison,” Frethorne wrote , “I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef.”

Frethorne’s letter is a rare surviving document reflecting the circumstances of the majority of English colonists who came to North America in the 17th century. The New England Puritans, after all, comprised only 15 to 20 percent of early English colonial migration.

Not only did the majority of English colonial migrants eat worse than the Puritans, but also their prayers (had they said any) would have sounded decidedly less thankful.

“People cry out day and night,” Frethorne wrote, “Oh! That they were in England without their limbs — and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again, yea though they beg from door to door.”

English migrants in Virginia had good reason not to feel grateful. Most came unfree, pushed out of England by big economic forces that privatized shared pastures and farmlands and pushed up the prices of basic necessities. By the 17th century, more than half of the English peasantry was landless. The price of food shot up 600 percent, and firewood by 1,500 percent.

Many peasants who were pushed off their homelands built makeshift settlements in the forests, earning reputations as criminals and thieves. Others moved to the cities, and when the cities proved no kinder, they signed contracts promising seven years of hard labor in exchange for the price of passage to the Americas, and were boarded onto boats.

A trip to Virginia cost Frethorne and others like him six months salary and took about 10 weeks. One quarter to one half of new arrivals to Virginia and the Carolinas died within one year due to diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and malaria. Others succumbed to the strain of hard labor in a new climate and a strange place — an adjustment process the English described as “seasoning.” Only 7% of indentures claimed the land that they had been promised.

Most of these common English migrants did not read or write, so vivid and revealing letters like Frethorne’s are rare. But in the research for my book Why We Left: Songs and Stories from America’s First Immigrants, I learned how English migrants viewed their situation through the songs they sang about the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Those songs survived hundreds of years by word of mouth before they were written down in the twentieth century.

These were not songs of thankfulness — not by a long shot. They were ballads full of ghastly scenes of the rejection, betrayal, cruelty, murder, and environmental ruin that had driven them out of England — and of the seductive but false promises that drew them to America. These 17th century songs planted the seeds for a new American genre of murder and hard luck ballads that was later picked up and advanced by singers like Johnny Cash, whose ancestors, like mine, were among those early hard luck migrants from England to America.

So if you find yourself a little blue this holiday season, take your marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes with a liberal dose of the Man In Black, and reassure yourself that you are a part of a long, long American tradition.

Joanna Brooks is Associate Dean of Graduate and Research Affairs at San Diego State University and author of Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants (Minnesota, 2013). She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

This is What Intersex Means

A brief introduction to the word

A longer version of LGBT is LGBTQQIA, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and allies. The last few letters tend to get far less attention than the first, but a woman who claimed she was dating the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps at the time of his DUI recently has raised interest in the “I.”

“The truth is I have been living with secrets my whole life,” Taylor Lianne Chandler wrote on Facebook on Nov. 13. “I was born intersex and named David Roy Fitch at birth.”

Intersex is a term that refers to someone whose anatomy or genetics at birth—the X and Y chromosomes that are usually XX for women and XY for men—do not correspond to the typical expectations for either sex. The “I” is distinct from the “T” for transgender people, who are typically born with a biological sex that fits the norm for male or female and then grow up to identify with the opposite gender. Intersex babies are not obviously male or female to begin with, according to society’s general rules about what one’s physical characteristics and chromosomal makeup are supposed to signify.

As University of Oregon professor and intersex expert Elizabeth Reis writes in her book Bodies in Doubt, “In the United States and most other places, humans are men or they are women; they may not be neither or both. Yet not all bodies are clearly male or female.” That may mean a child has typical female chromosomes and ovaries but external bodies parts of a male. Or it could mean the body parts that a doctor typically looks to when declaring a baby to be a girl or boy are incompletely formed, or ambiguous. Sometimes it’s clear in the delivery room, sometimes intersex people don’t become aware of their status until they are teenagers and puberty doesn’t happen as expected.

Performing surgery on an intersex baby is controversial. In South Carolina, the parents of an adopted intersex child are suing a hospital and its employees for surgically assigning “M.C.’s” sex as female at 16-months-old. Now around 10 years old, the child identifies as a boy. “Genital ‘normalizing’ surgery does not create or cement a gender identity; it just takes tissue away that the patient may want later,” writes the Intersex Society of North America in their position statement. Some in the intersex community choose not to have any medically unnecessary surgeries to change how they were born, even after they are old enough to identify their own gender and sexual orientation.

Though it’s hard to say exactly how common being intersex is (since it’s debatable which people belong under that umbrella term), medical experts say that genital anomalies occur in about 1 in 2,000 babies.

It’s worth noting that the word hermaphrodite is considered insensitive and stigmatizing by many who see it as “vague, demeaning, and sensationalistic, conjuring mythic images of monsters and freaks,” as Reis writes. Some parents have also balked at the word intersex, pushed by activists in the 1990s, feeling it suggests their child has a third gender and can not be a girl or a boy. In the medical establishment, the wide variety of conditions that might be referred to as intersex are typically referred to as disorders of sex development. Reis has advocated shifting that to divergence of sex development, to avoid the connotations of disorder, much as gender identity disorder was rebranded gender dysphoria by medical professionals addressing transgender people.

TIME society

Mattel Apologizes for Making Barbie Look Incompetent in Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer

Barbie

The sexist picture book has been slammed online

One of Barbie’s future careers should be in damage control.

Mattel and Random House found themselves at the center of an online firestorm this week when the Internet lampooned a book called Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer. A more accurate title would be Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer… If the Boys Do All the Work For Me.

Although Amazon lists the book as being published in July 2013, VP of Barbie’s Global Brand Marketing Lori Pantel told TIME that it came was published in 2010 and that “since that time we have reworked our Barbie books.”

On Monday, comedian Pamela Ribbon found the book at a friends house and ripped it to shreds on her blog, inspiring major backlash.

So what did the Twitterverse get in a tizzy about? Although the book’s title would indicate that its fights stereotypes against the tech industry’s gender gap, readers only need only get it to the second page to find out that Barbie is completely incompetent. While she’s capable of conceptualizing a game about a cute robot puppy (gender cliche, but we were ready to go with it — who doesn’t like robot puppies?), Barbie needs boys to actually do the computer programing for her. When Skipper asks if she can see the program, “Barbie says, laughing, ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!'” Silly Skipper and your high expectations!

The rest of the book involves Barbie crashing her computer (duh), passing a virus to Skipper (a pillow fight ensues… I mean, really), ignoring her female computer teacher’s advice on how to fix the virus (because if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that ladies should not be trusted with such things), and finally letting brogrammers come to her rescue. While Steve and Brian seem like nice enough guys, they don’t even teach Barbie what to do on her hot pink laptop.

“The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for,” says Pantel. “We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

In case they were in need of inspiration, people have been tweeting funny rewrites of the text so that it actually empowers women.

Barbie has been derided for a lot of things — her anatomically impossible figure, for example — but her career goals seemed on track if not admirable. She has been to space and business school But success involves more than just dressing the part. If you pair a doll with a hot pink laptop, she better know how to use it.

Maybe we should all just stick to GoldieBlox, a toy that teaches and encourages girls to do engineering themselves.

Read next: Watch Little Kids React to a Realistic-Looking Barbie Alternative

TIME language

Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year Is ‘Exposure’

Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus.
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The editors found their inspiration by connecting the big new stories of the year

Ebola. Ferguson, Mo. Ray Rice. ISIS. Data breaches. Nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence. The editors and lexicographers at Dictionary.com see all these people and places that drove the news in 2014 connected through a single word: exposure, their pick for 2014’s word of the year.

In making their choice, the editors are drawing on the word’s many layers of meaning. Exposure can define the condition of being exposed to harm, in the form of a virus like Ebola or hacks that compromise consumer data. Exposure can refer to publicity, the good kind that made the ALS ice bucket challenge so successful or the bad kind that resulted in Donald Sterling selling the L.A. Clippers. Exposure can mean bringing something to light, like the details of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown or the video of Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in a casino elevator. It can even operate on two levels, like when private selfies that expose a naked body are exposed to the public.

“This year was full of important stories and really somber events. There was the Ebola outbreak. There was ISIS. The stakes felt really high, and we wanted to reflect that in our selection,” says Senior Editor Renae Hurlbutt. “The word circles around these two themes of visibility and vulnerability, which were at play in all of the top news stories in 2014.”

Ebola is the obvious headliner that justifies “exposure” and first drew them to the word, but the Dictionary.com editors also wanted to capture the way controversial events had, less simply, exposed attitudes and opinions about big issues like race and violence in America. “Exposure was really a catalyst for a lot of these feelings of tumult and upheaval,” Hurlbutt says.

To choose the word, the editors started scouring headlines in September, using Google Trends (which shows volumes of searches for certain words or phrases over time) and mining their own data to see which words spiked into the public consciousness. This “year end exercise,” the editors say, helps their lexicographers decide which words need to be updated and provides a pool of candidates for word of the year. But in the end, the winner that goes in the word-of-the-year envelope is an editorial choice, unlike outlets like Merriam-Webster, which bases their yet-to-be-announced “WOTY” almost exclusively on lookup statistics.

“It’s us putting a marker in the ground every year that we can eventually look back on and think about,” says Dictionary.com Director of Content Rebekah Otto. Dictionary.com got into the word-anointing game in 2010, about 20 years after the modern trend began, in part because the now 19-year-old company had recently launched a blog to bring their staff into a dialogue with the public. This selection follows change (2010), tergiversate (2011), bluster (2012) and privacy (2013).

“The calendar is a comfortable way to mark and honor the passage of time,” Otto says. “That’s a big part of why we choose a word of the year.”

Also on the editors short list were borders, disrupt, wearables and bae. Borders had roots in Ukraine. Wearables, the editors say, felt early (and might be a better candidate for 2015). Disrupt was a word they wanted to represent an array of stories but felt the associations with startup culture would eclipse everything else. And bae was a buzzword that didn’t have the weight or broadness they were looking for.

“The things that happened in 2014 and the multiple meanings behind exposure just were so in sync,” says CEO Michele Turner.

On Nov. 17, Oxford declared vape as their word of the year. And there are more yet to come. In the meantime, here’s a video Dictionary.com made to commemorate their choice.

Dictionary.com’s 2014 Word of the Year from Dictionary.com on Vimeo.

TIME language

Clickbait, Normcore, Mansplain: Runners-Up for Oxford’s Word of the Year

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The expression displayed by the women in this stock photo is sometimes described as a duck face. JGI/Jamie Grill — Getty Images/Blend Images

Here are the words that Oxford editors would like to give a hearty round of recognition

On Nov. 17, Oxford announced that their word of the year for 2014 is “vape.” The venerable publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary also gave TIME three lists of candidates: the long list, the short list and the “blip list.”

The short list contains strong contenders that, had the linguistic winds blown a little differently, might have won the title. The long list contains solid candidates that editors found easier to cut. And the “blip list” is full of early favorites that editors watched fizzle in usage by the time their final votes came around in the autumn. Here is everything that had a chance, with most definitions taken or adapted from Oxford:

Winner

vape (v.): to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device

Short list

bae (n.): a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner, likely a shortening of baby or babe, though some theorize that it is an acronym for “before anyone else.”

budtender (n.): someone who works at a medical marijuana dispensary or retail marijuana shop.

contactless (adj.): describing technologies that allow a smart card, etc., to connect wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.

indyref (n.): an abbreviated form of Scotland’s failed referendum to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

normcore (n.): a fashion movement in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate statement.

slacktivist (n.): one who engages in digital activism on the Web which is regarded as requiring little time or involvement. Also slacktivism.

Long list

anti-vax (adj.): describing someone who is opposed to vaccination.

Brexit (n.): reference to the proposed exit of Britain from the E.U.

brogrammer (n.): a portmanteau of bro and programmer, which can describe a computer programmer with typically macho characteristics.

clickbait (n.): content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

cybernat (n.): a term used to pejoratively refer to supporters of Scottish independence, especially those who express opinions online.

dronie (n.): a selfie taken from a camera attached to a flying drone.

duck face (n.): a (pejorative) term for a facial expression made by pressing one’s lips together into the shape of a duck’s bill, often performed in selfies.

Euromaidan (n.): a word attached to protests in Ukraine, often used to describe anti-government demonstrators.

frost quake (n.): a sudden, rapid freezing of ground in which frozen water can crack surrounding rock and soil, causing loud sounds.

hangry (adj): to experience both hunger and anger, often to be easily angered because of hunger or so hungry that one becomes angry.

mansplain (v.): to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

microaggression (n.): brief and commonplace behaviors, intentional or unintentional, that convey hostility or insults toward another individual or group, particularly an ethnic group.

neuromorphic (adj): describing computing systems that mimic the human nervous system (and more complicated things).

polar vortex (n.): though many experts have debated the use of the term in the media, it describes a system of winds that circle one of the earth’s poles, the state of which can contribute to very cold temperatures.

poor door (n.): a separate door to a building meant to be used by people of a lower economic class, as in a luxury apartment building with a block of affordable units.

Blip list

Columbusing (n.): the act of appropriating, without acknowledgment, a cultural attribute associated with an ethnic group other than one’s own.

conscious uncoupling (n.): an approach to ending a marriage or romantic relationship which emphasizes acceptance of mutual responsibility.

ice bucket challenge (n.): a stunt in which a person films the act of dumping ice water on their head and uploads the video to social media, challenging a friend to do the same or donate to charity.

parcelcopter (n.): an unmanned aircraft used to deliver goods.

smugshrug (n.): an emoticon representing the face and arms of smiling person with hands raised in a shrugging gesture.

spornosexual (n.): a man who is extremely conscious of his appearance and devoted to cultivating a sexually attractive physique.

TIME society

Oxford’s 2014 Word of the Year Is Vape

Dictionary
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Oxford's editorial staff says the word is tied to this year's big debates about health and society

Oxford’s lexicographers keep watch over billions of words every month—from literary novels to academic journals to blogs—and at the end of the year they put their brainy heads together to select a single word that best embodies the zeitgeist. Out of this year’s haze of nominees and debate emerged four little letters.

VAPE GRAPHOxford’s word of the year for 2014 is vape.

Vape, a verb meaning to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device, beat out everything from bae to normcore. It was coined in the late 1980s when companies like RJR Nabisco were experimenting with the first “smokeless” cigarettes. But, after years of languishing, the word is back, needed to distinguish a growing new habit from old-fashioned smoking. According to Oxford’s calculations, usage of vape, which as a noun can refer to an e-cigarette or similar device, more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.

“It’s hard to anticipate what’s going to capture the public imagination at any given moment,” Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford’s dictionaries division, tells TIME. “Vape only really caught on a few years ago and now we’ve seen a dramatic rise.”

But, he notes, Oxford doesn’t choose a word of the year simply based on how much ink has been spilt writing it. “A word is just the surface of something that often has a really complex and rich life underneath,” he says.

On the surface, vape’s selection captures the exploding popularity of e-cigarettes—which, effectively invented in 2003, are suddenly close to a $2 billion market. It also memorializes this year’s historic opening of legal marijuana shops, where residents in Colorado and Washington state can buy vape pens (devices that vaporize liquids containing nicotine or cannabis into forms users can inhale) for about $60.

Deeper, Grathwohl says, the word has ties to our preoccupations with freedom and health and legislation. “Vape has been a lightning rod for a lot of discussion about the positions we want to take as a society,” he says. How great of a health problem are (e-)cigarettes and what place do they have in our culture? What should be kept out of public spaces? What should be regulated by the government? The word vape could find itself in answers to all those questions (like the ones Eliza Gray tackled in a TIME story this September, “The Future of Smoking”).

The word’s rise also carries an undertone of technological advancement: vape has had an opportunity to become popular because a device that seemed futuristic when the word was coined is now in the average corner shop. With the invention of vapor culture has come a whole lexicon, Grathwohl says: vaper, vapoholic, vaporium, carto, e-juice. Vaping has even forced society to throw the word tobacco in front of traditional cigarettes, a clarification that would have seemed silly and redundant a few years ago.

Oxford’s 2014 selection was on another level a balancing act, countering the cuteness of their word of the year in 2013: selfie. Though last year’s selection went viral—and proclaiming words of the year is partly an exercise in getting free publicity—Grathwohl says they felt the selection needed to be a little more serious this year. That is, perhaps, why some of these words made their short list but did not rise to the top:

bae (n., slang): a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner, likely a shortening of baby or babe, though some theorize that it is an acronym for “before anyone else.” The word can also be used as an adjective to describe something good or cool.

budtender (n.): someone who works at a medical marijuana dispensary or retail marijuana shop.

contactless (adj.): describing technologies that allow a smart card, etc., to connect wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.

indyref (n., slang): an abbreviated form of Scotland’s failed referendum to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

normcore (n.): a fashion movement in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate statement.

slacktivist (n.): one who engages in digital activism on the Web which is regarded as requiring little time or involvement. Also slacktivism.

Oxford’s selection is the first of many big ones to come before 2014’s word-anointing season ends in early January.

Read next: Words of the Year: How the Pithy Tradition Began

TIME viral

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Give an Adorable 6-Year-Old Excellent Life Advice

And then he proceeds to roll on the ground

The great and powerful Neil deGrasse Tyson has some excellent life advice: When the world gives you puddles, jump in them.

When the famed astrophysicist came to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts last week, an adorable 6-year-old girl in an Einstein T-shirt asked what first graders can do to “help the world.”

And his answer is all about exploration. Jumping in puddles, banging on pots and pans — even if your mom and dad aren’t always gung ho about the whole thing.

“Tell your parents Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson said you should jump in the puddle,” he said before doing launching into a roll on the gymnasium floor.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” he said, reading the Einstein quote off the girl’s shirt. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

(h/t: Nerdist)

TIME society

The Untapped Potential in Science Fiction

science fiction landscape
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If we can assign more texts to students that ask them to let go of the everyday shorthand for finding themselves in a story, they often open themselves up to deeper and more surprising ways to relate to each other

If we can end the elitism and teach more science fiction to teenagers and young adults, we can change the world. This assertion, while bold, may not be hyperbolic. When asked why she starting writing science fiction, the late legendary writer and MacArthur Grant winner Octavia Butler once told Charlie Rose, “Because there are no closed doors, no walls.”

Sci-fi has a reputation for being a clubhouse for white-boy nerds, but for Butler, an African American woman from Southern California who endured a series of degrading low-wage jobs while developing her voice as a writer, reading and writing science fiction actually enabled her to transcend racism and sexism. Science fiction—by letting her imagine and create new worlds on the page—was a conduit to feelings of citizenship. You can’t be an outsider hero without the hero. From Lauren Olamina, Butler’s hyper-empathic heroine in Parable of the Sower, to George Orwell’s Winston Smith, sci-fi’s outsider heroes interrogate systems of power. Their means may differ, but the end is rarely just the nihilistic destruction of those with power. They almost always aim to bring themselves and others into a better system, often of their own making. They are outlaws with a purpose, rebels with a cause.

For an outsider genre, science fiction is pretty mainstream in the classroom these days. Common Core standards acknowledge it, along with its cousins speculative fiction and fantasy literature, as acceptable content in Language Arts curricula. Many of the current generation of professors in English Departments grew up watching Star Trek and The X-Files, including University of Maryland English professor Lee Konstantinou, who feels that science fiction novels and films help students to process big-picture questions, especially “risk, political conflict, and social and technological systems.” Konstantinou is a contributor to Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, a recent anthology co-edited by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, that goes to the heart of why I think teaching science fiction to more students can change the world: because science fiction productively embodies difference and illustrates emerging technologies, giving students enough of each so that they may interrogate these elements in both the fictional and the real worlds. Finn teaches sci-fi texts as disparate as E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”—which anticipates much of the networked 21st century in its formulation of mechanical interconnectedness—and Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age—which projects Forster’s Victorian moment forward into the age of nanotechnology. The refrain he hears from students in courses ranging from seminars in digital culture to composition: “I didn’t know I was allowed to do this, to be creative in this way.”

No matter how popular it gets, science fiction has maintained its ability to stir debate. Over the last few years, a consensus has been building around the idea that what happens between the covers of science fiction books and what happens in real life may be more connected than we think. Scientists, writers, and policymakers are coming together to grapple productively with this possibility. Cultural critics like Judith Shulevitz see in science fiction a possible solution to the much-discussed crisis in the humanities (or at least as a good reason not to charge English majors higher tuition than engineering students). As much potential as science fiction has to connect the humanities with STEM fields, its unique blend of fantasy and research offers an even more radical opening for inclusion, best articulated by Butler: “You get to write yourself in, whether you were part of the mainstream society or not.” Stories often function as a space where author and reader find self-actualization. While creating a different world through writing or inhabiting one through reading is a powerfully visceral form of belonging for anyone, and science fiction has a unique ability to provide outsiders and outcasts with a language to talk about their lives and to one another. Whether or not anyone looks or talks like you at school, on TV, or in the movies doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with time travel, extra-terrestrials, or alternative universes. If we can assign more texts to students that ask them to let go of the everyday shorthand for finding themselves in a story, they often open themselves up to deeper and more surprising ways to relate to each other.

This approach resonates with Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. For Nelson, asking students to read themselves into the stories of science fiction creates the opportunity for dialogue that “allows for generative re-imaginations of what students are doing outside the classroom.” As an example, she points to Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred, in which the protagonist—who many say is a stand-in for Butler herself—is pulled backward in time against her will from 1976 California to the 19th century slave plantation of her ancestors. “Part of the time travel in Kindred is that she got to be better at telling when it was coming,” says Nelson, who sees in this plot point a ready metaphor for racial politics in the 21st century. Progress gets disrupted by what she calls “moments of capture,” when “we are snatched back into the reality of…these moments of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that are reminders that take us back to Emmett Till.” Nelson observes that science fiction, regardless of what department the class is in, fosters among students a compelling kind of intellectual re-mixing—what she calls for her own work “South Central LA meets genetics”—that empowers them to connect their studies in in English, sociology, engineering, law, and elsewhere with activism.

At the same time that Nelson and other professors report that science fiction has outgrown the English Department, policymakers in the arts and beyond are noticing its potential for networked thought across institutions. Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation for the National Endowment for the Arts, finds in science fiction (and other fantasy genres, like animation) an echo of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, one of his favorite writers, in the ways both “pull back the veil on the mysteries that drive the human condition.” Science fiction, he points out, “adds another layer of imagining where those mysteries and drives are taking us.” What O’Brien is getting at is that investing resources—including imagination—into the intersections of art, science, technology, and health will help us understand creativity as a resource that can be “exercised and optimized in fresh ways.” The right to imagine a new world is perhaps the boldest act of citizenship.

Rather than a one-way bridge from literature to STEM that will save the humanities, O’Brien’s comments suggest that critics, policymakers, and educators should see in science fiction the prospect of a highway between them with multiple lanes of dialogue and inspiration that could save much more than that. The key here isn’t just that science fiction allows marginalized people to write themselves into the story, it’s that science fiction novels, stories, films, and series increasingly invite marginalized people to read themselves into the story, to imagine themselves as participants and agents in changing the systems of culture, technology, and politics that govern their lives. To change the world, students have to believe that change is possible in the first place. Science fiction gives them a tangible vision of that change, for better and for worse, and invites them to use their imaginations to read themselves into the story.

Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca

Chinese characters
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The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable

A Russian, a Korean, and a Mexican walk into a bar. How do they communicate?

In English, if at all, even though it’s not anyone’s native language. Swap out a bar for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China this week, and the attending heads of state from those three countries still have to communicate in English: It’s the only official language of the APEC, even when the APEC gathers in Beijing.

Mark Zuckerberg recently scored points during his own visit to Beijing when he made some remarks in Mandarin. The news sparked talk about whether China’s economic rise means Mandarin could someday rival English as a global language. Don’t count on it. Fluency in Mandarin will always be helpful for foreigners doing business in China, much like mastery of Portuguese will give you a leg up in Brazil. But Mandarin poses no threat to English as the world’s bridge language, the second tongue people turn to when communicating and doing commerce across borders.

Thanks to the British empire, native English speakers are strategically sprinkled across the globe. English is also the native language of shared popular culture – music, movies, even sport, with the recent ascendance of England’s Premier League. And English is undeniably the language of the technologies connecting us all together. Most languages don’t even bother to coin terms for things like “the Internet” or “text” or “hashtag.”

It’s little wonder that an estimated 2 billion people will speak functional English by 2020, the vast majority of them having learned it as their second language.

English is an inherently neutral language: There is no gender in English as there are in Romance languages. There are no class or generational distinctions baked into the language, as there are with so many languages that feature different you’s with different verb conjugations – the deferential you (boss, elder, stranger) versus the familiar you (friend, subordinate, child). Ours is a radically egalitarian and modern language, and it is simpler and more direct as a result.

English is also more politically neutral than we think. Even Islamist Jihadist propagandists would concede that English, is a convenience in spreading their word. And any relative decline over time of America’s global power and influence will actually help, rather than hurt, the cause of English worldwide, further decoupling people’s perception of the language from their perceptions of the United States and its influence.

The French – whose language was the last viable alternative in the race to become the world’s lingua franca – are understandably sore about the triumph of English. But even French companies have had to fall in line, accepting English as their organizational language. In what amounted to a telling parody of modern France, one grievance underlying a recent Air France strike was the airline union’s anger at the adoption of English as the default language for internal communications across its global operations.

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable, for linguistic, economic, cultural, and political reasons. For starters, the language is just too hard for outsiders to attain fluency. Then there is the inconvenient fact that Mandarin doesn’t hold sway throughout all of China.

Indeed, resistance to any claim the Chinese language may have for global status may be strongest in the country’s own neighborhood, where nations are nervous about China’s intentions. The PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveys show that people in nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan are far more comfortable with America than with China as regional superpower. And so it’s no accident that English is the only official language of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations.

This cordon sanitaire containing China’s cultural (and if it comes to it, military) expansion is one of the lesser appreciated dynamics of today’s world, one that augurs well for the cause of the English language and American cultural influence. All the hype surrounding China’s rise to great power status can make us lose sight of the fact that what realtors might call the “China Adjacent Region” (let’s call it CAR) – the crescent encompassing Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the rest of Southeast Asia, and India – far surpasses China in population and economic power.

So don’t expect Chinese to take on English for global preeminence. That’s the good news for us as Americans. The bad news – at least for Americans thinking they don’t need to learn a second language– is that English’s very universality will make more and more of the world’s population multilingual. If all our kids speak is English, they’ll be at a disadvantage in a globalized labor force – because everyone else will speak it too. But at least we get to pick our second language.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He teaches journalism at Arizona State University.

Read next: Speaking More Than One Language Could Sharpen Your Brain

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You Can Buy Mr. Darcy’s House

61st Berlin Film Festival - The King's Speech - Photocall
Actor Colin Firth Sean Gallup—Getty Images

The British estate that inspired Jane Austen is up for sale

You might not be able to live out the rest of your days with Pride and Prejudice’s fictional Mr. Darcy, but you can spend them at his British estate.

Wentworth Woodhouse — the residence that reportedly inspired Jane Austen’s depiction of Darcy’s home, Pemberley — is reportedly going on the market for a mere $10.9 million. A spokesperson for U.K. estate agency Savills told the Daily Mail that the manor will go on the market “in the new year.”

The estate will serve as the perfect muse for all that Pride and Prejudice fan fiction you’ve been dying to write.

The estate, which has five miles worth of corridors, was home to the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam, who reportedly inspired Darcy himself.

While $10.9 million might seem like a bargain, keep in mind that there is an estimated $65.6 million of required repairs.

Worth it.

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