Heartbreaking

I admit it, I was not in the mood to be the enigmatic instructor in the front of the room today. So instead, I asked students, via email, to bring in at least one song from the final projects they are working on about women, media, and narratives of self. One of my students brought in this Lauryn Hill classic:

Like many in the room, she did not know the history of this song and its direct comment on some of Hill’s less than positive relationships with other artists who tried to silence her creativity and sell out the sound. Instead, what she heard was the story of men who abuse women, profit from their intelligence, and keep them under control so that they don’t lose access to the power, intelligence, and creativity they bring to the table. She also talked about ambivalence in the song, i.e. that on the one hand it is an anthem for women who have the power to walk away from people who are enigmatic but shallow and the awareness that comes from realizing a person is more invested in their image and being worshiped than in real relationships, but on the other hand there is great cost to walking away from people who are idolized by the rest of your peer group. It was insightful presentation.

Unfortunately, it was also headed to a dark place. Try as I might, I could not preempt that in order to keep us on track and the student from having to face her peers post-melt down. Suddenly, she was comparing the engimatic figure in the song (he who shall remain nameless at least here) and several of her male professors in her other major, a discipline that is notoriously peopled with enigmatic men who are aloof and seemingly untouchable. She compared the shallowness of her relationships to said instructors to the availability, nurturing, and mentorship she had received in other departments and how the “cult of personality” in her discipline was surprisingly missing in others which made her think about how male egos intertwine with misogyny in order to create whole systems of power based on worship and abuse and the pathologizing of anyone who questions them. While the rest of her narrative was mixed with personal issues I cannot repeat here, suffice it to say that this crisis and insight were a result of the student trying to get her needs met from these largely than life men and being summarily smacked down because she wasn’t cute enough, thin enough, dumb enough to fall for their crap, etc. and also the more it happened the more she engaged in approach-avoidance (where you try to talk to someone and when they blow you off you avoid them until you can pull up the courage to do it again, ultimately reinforcing the idea that there is something wrong with you and your ability to be liked or loved instead of with the situation or the interpersonal dynamics that each of you has some responsibility in). For those who don’t know, approach-avoidance is one of the best tools of the abusive professor, because if they can get you on that cycle, then they can point to your neediness and erratic behavior as proof you are a giant nut bar and they are innocent.

Listening to her story in class and then later in my office, complete with email proof of some of her interactions, I began to wonder exactly how it is we continue to support these cults of personality in academe. Though some departments are certainly more guilty than others, and some genders perhaps more so than others, I think we can point to at least one person in every discipline who acts like this and in most cases their unbelievable narcissism is rewarded. In thinking about it, for the first time in a long time, from the student’s perspective instead of the colleague one, I began to wonder how many broken young women there are roaming college campuses because they don’t get called on or mentored by Mr. Fabulous, and then when they go to ask why … Mr. Fabulous makes them feel like the tiniest fleck of poo stuck in his brand new shoes, you know the fleck that stinks forever but can’t be washed out … Some girls go away and cry. Some girls try harder to please, helping build the very cult that dishonors them. And some girls, the really brave or really clueless ones, dare to ask why they are being treated this way or make it known that they see through this behavior, and those girls pay. They pay dearly. We’ve all seen it happen. Social ostracism doesn’t stop in high school; it isn’t part of 8 year old developmental brains. We do this. We let this happen.

I found myself asking the same questions I always silently ask said colleagues in these situations:

  1. Have you ever asked yourself why you are in education?
  2. If you think of students as the fodder to grade your papers, due your research, or even write those books you get raises on, what in the system prevents you from realizing you are a parasite and doing something about it?
  3. How do you think learning works if you engage in your own version of approach-avoidance in which the chosen few are showered with a ridiculous portion of attention and the rest are relegated to the hinterlands of two word emails and bored stares?
  4. If the only thing driving you teach is your ego, then have you considered local theater instead? perhaps a poetry slam at your favorite coffee shop? (people with real talent do this too, but we all know about the pompous pontificators who show up and have a forum, just think, that could be you!)
  5. And if deep down, you really don’t give a sh*t what students think, then why do you have a syllabus that requires them to speak in class and/or interact with you in some version of a virtual extended classroom?

One word: Therapy.

While therapy is not cheap and it doesn’t pay you, in the long run

  1. you will do far less damage to others in this world
  2. you may actually like yourself when it is over
  3. you can do much better in the world with an authentic self and an internal regulating system that doesn’t require you to feed off of others
  4. while you may never be worshiped or adored again, you also won’t need to be and the people who offer you love and friendship will actually mean it and not just being waiting for you to write a recommendation or drop dead so they can move into your office

What I told my student in class, was to listen to another Lauryn Hill song in which she realizes that looking outside herself for validation is not worth it and where she points to all the ways we are told to put our faith, our learning, and our sense of peace, in the hands of others (including educators) when to be strong we need to take it into our own hands and build our own communities of strength that are based on mutuality, mindfulness, and genuine respect for each other.

My world it moves so fast today
The past it seems so far away
And I squeeze it so tight, I can’t breathe
And every time I try to be
What someone has thought of me
So caught up, I wasn’t able to acheive
But deep in my heart the answer it was in me
And I made up my mind to find my own destiny
I look at my environment
And wonder where the fire went
What happened to everything we used to be
I hear so many cry for help
Searching outside of themselves
Now I know His strength is within me
And deep in my heart the answer it was in me
And I made up my mind to find my own destiny
And deep in my heart the answer it was in me
And I made up my mind to find my own destiny

One of the students had brought the entire CD in to do her song, so we ended class with this song. I asked each student to think about the meaning of this song and how it related to their own lives and their own empowerment. I’m passing that on to you, even as I ask the academics among my readers to think of new ways of interacting with those colleagues who are little more than predators feeding on the innocence and trained need of young students just looking for one person to validate and encourage their intelligence.

 

2 thoughts on “Heartbreaking

  1. One of my students is doing an honors thesis with such a person — perhaps not such a bad version of such a person, but such a person nonetheless.

    There is a book on the topic by a younger scholar, a book she likes and wants to cite, but she knows her professor resents this book because it’s from the next generation in the field. She is getting writer’s block from not citing it and following its direction, yet is afraid to do it for fear her professor won’t recommend her to graduate programs.

    I thought, gosh — if it’s true, that’s not good teaching. The Emeritus Professor, a man, said it was human nature. I thought, gosh — that means that for men, narcissism is #1 and comes before (a) learning — the new book and (b) teaching — the undergraduate.

    Am I too harsh / not understanding enough of this professor? I don’t think so — he is very established and can afford to be generous, and what about the other two people involved — the other author, and the student? But, am I too demanding?

    • I think we would have to be privy to the specifics of each of these situations to determine where the line of “too demanding” or “too harsh” vs. “not enough” or “just right” and I think in academe these lines are intentionally blurred to always keep people who would otherwise stand up second-guessing themselves and allowing these behaviors to continue.

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