While Supplies Last
Or, A Word About Promotions
I hope that your week was filled with all sorts of learning and fun! My week was pretty full. I had the pleasure of joining the Brooklyn Public Library for a conversation about reparations. The library has curated some resources for people who want to learn more about the issue. Later that evening, I talked to Mehdi Hasan about fast food, capitalism, and racial justice on his show. I returned to my Catholic school roots and talked economic justice and Jesuit spirituality on AMDG, a Jesuit podcast. On Friday, I joined GBH-Boston Public Radio for a conversation about my book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, and yes, Dunkin’ Donuts came up (when talking to people in Rome…). The platform that brings you YOUR FAVORITE PROF, Substack interviewed me about why fast food and good teaching capture my heart and mind, and I mentioned some of my favorite newsletters. I also talked to Politico’s newsletter about Black women and tenure (more on this later in today’s teaching note).
On Monday, July 12, I’ll be giving a talk to the Smithsonian Associates about my first book, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration.
The fast food industry thrives on consistency. The food, the packaging, the uniforms, and the feelings surrounding your favorite taco or burger or chicken sandwich are supposed to be the same coast to coast, border to border. But, there is always room for something a little special—the seasonal, the cross-promotional, the little gift to reward the loyalty of returning customers. Here are some of my favorites (while supplies last):
In future editions of YOUR FAVORITE PROF, we will discuss the most iconic of Happy Meal toys (remember the Beanie Babies panics of the 1990s?), but I would be remiss not to mention the Halloween Pumpkin Happy Meal promotions, in which the vessel for your Happy Meal could be reused as a vessel for collecting Halloween candy. Levels of genius in this one. These pails have inspired some excellent historical analysis.
2. Since the 1970s, fast food companies have linked up with Hollywood to create limited-edition ephemera, and collectible soda fountain cups provide the perfect canvas to tease movie scenes and highlight characters. I loved “The Jetsons” as a child, and the cartoon’s rendering of a future of robot domestic workers, self-driving spaceships, and entire meals served in capsule form made me wonder what the 2000s had in store. The Jetson family lived in 2062, and hopefully I’ll be around to see if the Hanna-Barbera vision of our world was accurate.
3. Sometimes a promotion isn’t an opportunity to gather more plastic items, but rather a convoluted game of sorts, that leaves customers confused and mildly irritated. In 1985, Burger King launched a campaign based on a fictional character named Herb. Herb was ostensibly the only person in the United States who had never had a Whopper, so if you saw Herb while at Burger King, you could win $5000 and then enter a drawing to win $1 million. In the meantime, if you declared you were not Herb while ordering at Burger King, you were eligible for a 99 cent Whopper. But, if your name was in fact Herb, but you weren’t the pursued Herb, you would say something to the effect that you were not THAT Herb. What? Exactly. This two-year campaign ended with the firing of the advertising agency that cooked this idea up, a consumer fraud condemnation in Delaware, and an appearance on Wrestlemania.
4. The way my brain works is that when I see commercials for fast food promotions, all I can think about is, “HOW MANY LAWYERS DID THEY NEED FOR THIS?” In the 1970s until the 1980s (or later), Dairy Queen offered up sundaes in plastic helmets that represented Major League Baseball teams. The mini helmets were automatic collectors items, and the lure of completing the set ensured that children and adults would visit their local Dairy Queens all summer long.
Hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane or that path into the past!
So, a word about the other kind of promotion. This week, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced that she was offered tenure and promotion (see what I’m doing here) at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, after a contentious fight involving her initial hire as an untenured Knight Chair in Investigative Journalism and Race. She declined the revised offer with tenure and instead will be a Knight Chair at Howard University. The announcement and accompanying statement, fueled a number of conversations about race, gender, higher education, and continued discrimination in the workplace. I weighed in briefly on the matter in the Politico article I linked above, and I could speak endlessly about the fundamental flaws in the tenure and promotion system at colleges and universities. I’m happy that Nikole Hannah-Jones found a place to land. More importantly, I’m glad that her story was able to provide an opportunity for the public to better understand the dangerous overreach of university trustees—many of whom have little to no knowledge of education. Lots of smart people have written about this moment, amplified the tenure denials and politics of tenure denials among less prominent scholars, and pointed out the ways that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed that in fact tenure does not mean a job for life in light of massive budget cuts and shortfalls. The only thing I want to add to the conversation is that tenure denials and the firing of tenured educators is also tied to the moral panic that has been mounted under the umbrella of critical race theory. In last week’s subscribers only edition of YOUR FAVORITE PROF, I talked about why the campaigns to stop ethnic studies and critical race theory are as dangerous and nonsensical as other classroom battles in the past. The majority of students in K-12, college, and even law schools, where critical race theory originated, are not engaged in the study of critical race theory. This fact remains unimportant for the discourse. What is happening is that schools that have long ignored the teaching of non-White scholars, ignored the disparities among learning experiences of non-White students, and have recently considered anti-racist teaching and practice, are being targeted as doing something other than teaching students for the world as it is today. Whether it’s in the case of UNC being influenced by a donor’s opposition to Hannah-Jones’s framing of American history via The 1619 Project or this most recent case of a tenured teacher in Tennessee allegedly losing his job because of assigned readings about race, the organized efforts to peddle in alternative facts, organize around white grievance at the expense of truth telling, and suggest to students that squeaky wheels (rather than educators) set curriculum is creating a problem for all people who believe that learning is indeed a growth process that requires struggle and challenge. I’m sure attorneys and teachers unions are prepared to defend the dismissed, but the toll of the firings, the very public battles, and the constant threats to livelihood and safety won’t be resolved when jobs are reinstated, work is replaced, or settlement documents are signed. I have no doubt that some of the fly-by-night organizations and laws drafted to fight critical race theory will collapse under the weight of court cases and the thinness of their arguments, but the chilling effect for teachers and communities will be enough to undo the thoughtful and brave work of accurate and fact-based teaching. This is how a backlash works. When the parent groups stop meeting with principals and the “No Critical Race Theory” signs are thrown away and the “Make U.S. History Great Again” t-shirts are relegated to the bottom drawers, what remains is the satisfaction that bullying, threats of withholding tuition dollars and financial gifts, and fabricating information works. And, some of us are still brave.
Until next time,
YOUR FAVORITE PROF