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Stone Soup lands Jan Eliot in hot water with teachers

A recent story-line in Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup has upset teachers from around the country. According to the Register Guard (Eugene, OR) three strips touched up on teacher furloughs and Jan’s view that they cheat students out of classroom time. Many teachers felt that the commentary was an attack on teachers by the way the strip (see below) was worded. They felt Jan was implying teachers were getting something positive – like a benefit.

From her blog, Jan makes it clear:

Believe me, when I put “Furlough Days” in my strip, I was not attacking teachers. “How many furlough days do they get?” refers to the kids being home, not to teachers “getting” something.

I live in Oregon, where education funding has reached a crisis state. Furlough days have been instated because the schools cannot afford to operate. Our kids are missing valuable education time because the money is not available to keep the schools open. One of our districts will be operating only four days a week for the rest of the school year.

Some readers have interpreted my intent as a way to slam teachers. It couldn?t be farther from the truth. Our schools are expected not only to educate our kids, but manage a large variety of complex social ills. They cannot perform either function at current funding levels.

Furlough days do not equal teacher prep or vacation days? they equal a failure to responsibly educate kids, a failure brought on by a complex set of issues that include inadequate funding.

Community Comments

#1 rina piccolo
April/14/2011
@ 9:02 am

Everyone always thinks it’s about them. (Note how non-specific I’m being here… I don’t want anyone to think this comment is about any particular group.) Sheesh.

#2 David Jones
April/14/2011
@ 9:29 am

It has gotten to where a cartoonist cannot lampoon anyone these days. My current storyline in my web comic has serial killers up in arms because I made the one on a date with Fug’s mom look like a big nerd… Psychopaths are so sensitive…..

#3 Mike Lester
April/14/2011
@ 9:40 am

The problem w/ the comic is she was right:

According to the most recent OECD figures (2007), the Koreans spent $5,437 per primary-school pupil; we spent $10,229. For education as a whole, the Koreans spent $7,325 per pupil; we spent $14,269. They not only ?outpace our kids in math and science?; they do it by only spending half as much.
-SOURCE: National Review

#4 Tom Heintjes
April/14/2011
@ 10:03 am

I think Jan’s joke was great, and it hit home with me the day I read it in the paper. When it’s time for a teacher workday, furlough day, what have you, my first self-centered reaction is, “How can they DO this to me?”

And I suspect that Georgia schools are deeper into the crapper than Oregon schools. We’re one more downturn from equpping kids with charred sticks for writing. The geniuses at the Legislature have been talking about cutting the number of school days from the currently mandated 180 days, but lengthening each school day by 10 minutes. Oh yeah, that should help crank out brainiacs.

#5 donna lewis
April/14/2011
@ 11:30 am

I’d be careful about pissing off the serial killers. Better to stick with educators. And dog owners.

d

#6 Mike Cope
April/14/2011
@ 11:41 am

U.S. teachers get “furlough” days? Sheesh … Wimps.

#7 donna lewis
April/14/2011
@ 11:53 am

The teachers use their furlough days to do wild and crazy things with their windfall of income….I’ve heard it’s a decadent time.

#8 Philip Taterczynski
April/14/2011
@ 12:33 pm

When I first read this strip last week, I didn’t think about any possible blame leveling. However, looking back on it, I can see where it’s easy to be confused. I shall put on my hat as a linguist and former English teacher.

In panel two, Alix says that today is “…a teacher furlough day”. In panel three, Val asks how many furlough days “they” get. According to the rules of antecedence, which is a linguistic universal and not specific to English, a pronoun is naturally associated with the most recently mentioned noun unless there are logical or syntactic reasons to do otherwise.

It is natural, therefore, for a reader to assume that the “they” refers to the teachers, not the kids, since the former were directly associated with the word “furlough” in the word’s previous mention. Combine that with the current sociopolitical climate in which many blame the teachers and their unions for educational shortcomings, and it’s easy to see how the negative interpretations were made. The only way to fix the ambiguity is to rewrite Val’s dialogue in panel three to eliminate the pronoun and make it absolutely clear that she is referring to the kids and not the teachers. It also might have helped to have given Evie a more serious expression – she looks sarcastic to me (and I agree with Mike Lester – we aren’t #1 anymore).

#9 Scott Metzger
April/14/2011
@ 1:42 pm

When my wife has a furlough day, we do three things: go shopping for a new Bentley, open a bottle of Dom Pérignon and then relax in our swimming-pool-sized hot tub.

As we sit in the hot tub sipping champagne, my wife always says, “I wonder what all the poor people are doing?” And then we laugh. Oh, it never gets old.

#10 Jeff Pert
April/14/2011
@ 1:56 pm

Rina #1: I take offense at your remark.

Mike #3: I don’t normally agree w/ you (even though I love your cartoons), but you’re right. It ain’t the amount of money, it’s how the money’s being spent.

Scott #9: I literally LOLed.

#11 T. Brian Kelly
April/14/2011
@ 2:42 pm

I just read it for the first time cold and Grandma sure sounded like she was blaming the teachers for not being at school. No mention of administration or legislature responsibility or budget crisis or such and it didn’t much help that she was smiling in the last panel. You have to judge what’s literally on the page, especially in a nationally distributed comic strip. No room for excuses or rationalization after the fact. My two cents, and all that…

#12 David Jones
April/14/2011
@ 2:45 pm

With only four panels, that’s a lot of explaining to do! Plus, you kill the joke…. It is a joke everyone! I never saw Groucho apologize his his wisecracks…..

#13 donna lewis
April/14/2011
@ 3:24 pm

We need legislation that bans requests for apologies (or explanation) from humorists.

#14 donna lewis
April/14/2011
@ 3:26 pm

What if we all agreed to respond the same way to critics:

“Wow. You really seem to have missed the joke. Poor you.”

#15 Anne Hambrock
April/14/2011
@ 4:31 pm

As a teacher for the University of Wisconsin system, I am all too familiar with furlough days. One big problem with the public perception of these days is that they are viewed as days I DON’T HAVE to work rather than days when I am NOT ALLOWED to work.

If the line read “How many furlough days do they have to take?!” rather than “How many furlough days do they get?!”, Jan’s meaning would have been more clear.

I am not sure if it would have been as funny though. Comic strip dialogue often has to decide between funny pacing and rhythm or complete clarity. Making a joke crystal clear can suck the life right out of it.

#16 Anne Hambrock
April/14/2011
@ 4:38 pm

Another possibility would have been

“Yeah, but it’s a school furlough day”

“Another one?!” “How many furloughs are there?!”

“Enough to make sure we keep keep our 25th world ranking in math.”

That puts the poor scores of our students right at the doorstep of the lack of teacher/student time.

#17 T. Brian Kelly
April/14/2011
@ 8:03 pm

Anne H. you have it exactly right. Or re-write. Kudos. BTW, It’s not a funny topic these days either in itself or as presented in the strip. Choices.

#18 Mike Lester
April/15/2011
@ 7:56 am

“BTW, It?s not a funny topic these days either in itself or as presented in the strip. ” -Kelly

Your entitled to that opinion but, why? Who makes those calls anyway? Not like Eliot tweeted about Japanese tsunami victims. Is making a joke at teachers expense in wake of Wisc. pol. incorrect now? Who’s next? I’m w/ Lenny Bruce on these things: everybody’s fair game.

btw: If you’ve not read a story arc in the comics lately your missing some quality topics like, lasagna, sleeping Army privates and -newsflash: Dagwood fired!!! By comparison, Jan Eliot has written the comic equivalent of a Peggy Noonan column.

I’m a big teacher fan but why assume all teachers are Flying Nun perfect and elevate ANY group to some infallible high ground? It’s a bit dangerous to deify. Especially people who have the power to spank. (that narrows it down to teachers, priests, dominatrices and Presidents.)

@#8 Phillip: God bless you man. I was instantly transported to Ms. McCollough’s 3rd period english. Just reading the word “antecedence” made my head bob and my eyes roll back in my head and then…ZZZZZZZZ.

#19 Mike Lester
April/15/2011
@ 8:40 am

And, yes, I had to look the plural of “dominatrix”….

#20 Kassie Schwan
April/15/2011
@ 8:50 am

The problem is calling it a ‘furlough’ day. We always called it “Teacher Preparation Day” so it could be understood it was a teensy weensy chance for teachers to try and get caught up with the mountain of mandatory lesson plans, test requirements, etc.

#21 Terry LaBan
April/15/2011
@ 9:00 am

On initial glance, which is all most comics get, it sure looked like “they” meant the teachers to me. And fixing it would certainly not have taken “a lot of explaining”, as Dave Jones seems to think. Changing a couple of words would’ve made the reference clear. That said, it’s very easy to write a cartoon in a way that leaves it open to misunderstanding and it happens to everyone at regular intervals.

#22 B.j. Dewey
April/15/2011
@ 11:06 am

I’m a Stone Soup fan and my understanding of teacher furloughs is that they usually are days without pay that teachers must take because of school budget shortfalls. And yet when I first read the strip, I thought the third-panel comment, “How many days do they get?”, and even the comments leading up to it, could give the wrong impression, especially for readers who don’t understand furloughs. And now, having read of the teacher reaction to the strip and Jan’s good comments, I wonder (as a former editor) if her editors shouldn’t have caught this potential problem and suggested Jan rewrite the lines to better explain furloughs and eliminate any unintended meanings. Of course, maybe they did that and Jan disagreed. Whatever, I hope the misunderstanding is cleared up and that she doesn’t lose her good readers, especially the teachers she was trying to support.

#23 B.j. Dewey
April/15/2011
@ 11:18 am

Anne Hambrock’s above suggestions for rewriting the Stone Soup dialogue show how easily this could have been done, especially with Jan’s skill and experience. She was perhaps just so close to her subject and felt so strongly about it that she couldn’t see a potential problem. And, as I said, this is where good editors come in (assuming they didn’t in this case).

#24 brent childerhose
April/15/2011
@ 1:53 pm

The unfortunate ambiguity of this strip means it ends up supporting the silly conclusions of the National Review, rather than what Jan Eliot intended: “Our schools are expected not only to educate our kids, but manage a large variety of complex social ills.” Korea’s students do better b/c they don’t have the poverty we have in the USA, not because they pay their teachers less. jeez.

#25 Dave Stephens
April/15/2011
@ 3:36 pm

They have MORE poverty, not less. A little less than a third more poverty than the USA…

#26 Dan Olson
April/15/2011
@ 9:43 pm

Slightly off topic, but where do you get to read “Stone Soup” online uncolorized?

#27 Mike Lester
April/17/2011
@ 12:05 pm

Sorry but grammar discussions are only enhanced when someone says, “uncolorized”.

I have no idea where you can read Stone Soup in…black and white.

#28 Josh McDonald
April/18/2011
@ 7:46 am

I’m pretty sure most newspapers still print their comics in b&w.

#29 Hneyr Clausner
April/18/2011
@ 9:36 am

the world has become very “sensitive”…can’t say this or that, can’t imply this or that….we’re walkin’ on eggshells!

#30 Henry Clausner
April/18/2011
@ 9:39 am

wait..I want to be number 30…ah that’s better. The magic of the number 30….

#31 Ann Cleaves
April/18/2011
@ 5:58 pm

Odd the controversary. In my school system a teacher furlough day (and there are more all the time) is a day when a teacher does not get paid..so neither they nor the students are able to attend school. Everyone loses except the state budget.

#32 Marc Davidson
April/18/2011
@ 10:48 pm

We?ve gone to 50th in education and number one in gonorrhea, and that?s the accomplishments of an all Republican government.
? Dick Harpootlian (SC-D)
(Source: Washington Post, via motherjones)

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