Not Much Has Changed

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I was reading Breeze Harper’s piece on racist and misogynist trolling of her website Sistah Vegan a few days ago and thinking how little has changed for black intellectuals in North America. Breeze mentions how she has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, honors, and awards that should make her word hold some weight. However, as a post-colonial reading of Merleau-Ponty quickly points out the imagined black Other supersedes that of any disconfirming information. So we are always ignorant until proven smart. Always race baiting haters until we allow racism to run rampant on our sites or bow down to the know it all white expert who is likely reading an uncited bastardization of our own text back to us incorrectly. And so on.

What struck me most reading Breeze’s article was not just the long list of educational credentials that amount to nothing in the face of whiteness, but also the fact that she has been harassed by so-called Buddhists for daring to participate in decolonizing wellness practices. Not only does this seem decidedly anti-Buddhist, but it touches very close to home. You see, I have a white male Buddhist in my life, through no fault of my own, who is consistently harassing me about my intersectional politics and my desire for equal treatment at the university. He denies that there is any sign of discrimination in the classrooms he oversees and yet there are multiple complaints about racism, sexism, and homophobia overheard in the halls, claimed to be written on the evals, and most importantly several students and one faculty member have threatened to sue over oppressive behavior or pedagogical choices. He calls me unstable when I advocate for myself or others, and has literally told people to stay away from me if they want to succeed in our profession. Once, he even maligned my family and allegedly physically threatened a gay male colleague. But when anyone who he cannot menace asks him about the rumors about his behavior, he laughs and falls back on his Buddhism as proof that he would never harass students and faculty of color, queer students and faculty, women, or differently-abled people. He talks about his spirituality and its call for authenticity that he takes seriously and even publishes about. When backed into a corner, he even beats his chest and talks about his own experiences of being bullied in school and all the poor black families he worked with when he was young.  He, like the Buddhist in Breeze’s post, is accessing whiteness through the lens of “good person”, i.e. the idea that because he practices benevolent spirituality he has already conquered oppression not only in his own mind but in any arena in which he enters or controls. As such, he has the right to silence and deny evidence of oppression and the need to heal from it coming from the people most likely to know what it looks like: the oppressed. Unlike the spectres in Breeze’s article however, he is not a pimple faced kid hiding at an internet cafe or in the back room of the Women’s Studies class he hopes will get him dates all the while resenting nothing else was open in this time slot. He is a tenured department chair. A real live, living breathing man, with the power to shape minds and marginalize and oppress those he does not see as fit to complain.

This is why I started with the image above. You see, it was not too long ago that schools were segregated and people had to fight to get access to good educations. It was not too long ago that students had to walk out to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. And in fact, despite these huge gains often met with unspeakable emotional and physical violence from the “good people” brigade, the reality is that very little has changed. Key historical figures in the history of social justice in this country are slowly being removed from history books. Important people of color, queer people, and women are being slowly erased and their contributions being usurped by the assumption that the men in the books did it first. Differently-abled and trans folks have very seldom if ever seen themselves in the textbooks and when they do, it is often with their identities completely washed away. The demographics of schools are also showing a rise in re-segregation and the middle and high school level which leads to even more “Real World encounters” at the university level. Just last year I had a student tell me that she had never had to be in a class with a black person before meeting me and another tell me that she lived in a neighborhood where the police would escort me out if I ever visited. But the Chair swears this is a safe place for students of color to learn and faculty of color to teach, all though there are no faculty of color to speak of in his department if you do not count us fellow cross-listing faculty, none.

So, what does it all mean? Ultimately, while Breeze’s piece resonated with me on so many levels from shared experience in and outside of the blogosphere to the myths I internalized about education and meritocracy without even realizing it, I have to disagree with the premise. I do not believe that trolls are the stuff of the internet. I work with trolls every day and in this climate they are empowered to troll me with the goal of making me break without any consequences. Like the girl pictured above, I sit in classrooms with students who literally point and say snide things about the way I smell, how I do my hair, the things I find important and meaningful, etc. and when I discuss it with other faculty, I often see folks who are lead by the likes of Dr. Crackhead or worse Mr. Buddhist-light, whose capacity for emotional sadism rivals any white supremacist in the history books or outside of it. (Material added 4/27/13) To be clear, the N word, “black bitch”, and the like have all been said to my face or the face of my colleagues at one time or another in our careers; one can only wonder what these “colleagues” and instructors call us behind closed doors or with the not-so-invisible veil of the internet. (End of added material)

Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation when we have already fought the battle of equal education and seen its toll, only to let it slip through our fingers. Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a people when we have looked on lynching images and read about how group think works, and we let our classrooms slip back into seethingly invalidating environments egged on by the person in the front of the room or their boss. I write this, with no answers, as one person trying to change it, speaking to all of you readers who I hope are doing the same. Let’s join our thoughts and our voices and our strength because otherwise it will be too late.

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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.

 

Paper Returning Time

I am always astounded by students who send me 10-12 page “drafts” of their 3-5 page papers via email. They don’t ask me in class if I am willing to read drafts. Nor do they read the syllabus that says Ido not read “rough drafts” and offers a list of paper writing tools and mentors around campus; apparently, they don’t listen when I go over this in the first session or before handing out the paper assignment either.  Their emails seldom actually ask for help but rather say things like “here’s my draft” or “when can you look at this because I’d like to get it done before the deadline.” My TAs tell me they are often carbon copied on these emails, though these students have not attended their paper writing sessions or come to paper writing office hours which are where they are told to go with “near finished drafts” as well as paper ideas.

There is a tacit belief on the part of students that by sending me an email a day or two before their papers are due that I will edit their work down to its proper page length, correct their egregious composition issues, and even look up their citations for them. Many also believe that I will ensure that all material that is outside the topic in the paper will be replaced with material that is inside of it. The other part of this belief, of course, is that when I return them their new polished 3-5 pages it is like a contract saying they will get an A when they turn it in.

On many levels, these emails are the height of laziness and poor scholarship. Worse, when I ignore these emails and make a blanket statement in class reminding people I don’t read drafts and to use the various resources listed on the syllabus, and my TAs each remind them of their “paper writing” workshops and office hours, these same students send demanding emails wondering why I have not reviewed their papers and pointing out the deadline for the paper as if I don’t know it. Some, only on the rarest of occasions, have even asked for an extension based on the fact that “I gave you my paper last night to review and you didn’t get it back to me before today, so I could turn it in.” Hmmmm …. Would you like me to wipe your bottom as well?

So you could imagine how amused I was when a Soc Prof on twitter linked to a video on what paper writing time, and midterms/exams in general, look like from this side of the desk.  (warning there is language in this video that is an obvious exaggeration of the frustration some academics feel when faced with students unwilling to take responsibility for their own learning or work in the course; learning is a shared responsibility and that sharing means you do your part as much as we do ours):

When you are writing a paper, you should think about several things:

  1. this is an opportunity to show the level of your understanding and integration of the material and any attempt to shirk the task reflects negatively on your intelligence in the class
  2. writing is a critical skill that you must develop for success not only in college but outside of it, avoiding developing that skill by pushing it on to others does not help you, it hinders you
  3. there are multiple resources on most campuses to help you with writing that include (1) counseling for paper writing anxiety, (2) assessment for learning disabilities or emotional blockages that may actually constitute assignment modification for your needs, (3) writing centers that can help you with thesis development, cohesion, etc., (4) librarians and library workshops, that explain how to do research, how to cite, how to put ideas together, etc. (5) writing classes, writing intensive classes, or writing tutored or mentor classes which include an explicit commitment to teaching you how to write a college level paper and mentoring you through the process – take one of these early in your college career as an elective, and (6) TAs whose job is not to write your paper or review cobbled together scribblings but to help you narrow your ideas and compose them in a comprehensive way
  4. your peers are resources – everyone is in the learning process together in your class and therefore have access to the same material and expectations as you do, working together can provide opportunities for developing your collaboration skills, covering your blind spots, and idea generation in a diverse environment. The only thing you need to be careful of is that when it comes time to write, you do your own work.
  5. there are podcasts specifically devoted to grammar from Grammar Girl that may help you with the more pedantic aspects of writing as well
  6. Not knowing the style guide required for the class is not an excuse. Most style guides have basics online for free, the entire guides are available at the bookstore, the reference section of the library, and most writing centers. You should check which style is required at the beginning of the term and then familiarize yourself with it through out the course so you are ready when paper writing time arrives
  7. if you are less self-directed, I am told there are expensive citation programs that will not only hold all of your citations at the ready but format them in any of the major formatting styles for you
  8. your professor is there to clarify the assignment, offer feedback on self-generated paper topics or resources – they are not your personal writing tutor, paper selling factory, or anything else that allows you to push aside your intellectual commitment to learn

Education is not a magic bus you get on by paying your exorbitant fare, sleep in the back of, disrespect by doodling and chatting when awake, and then get off 4 years later with a 4.0 It is a process in which you are an equal and many times majority participant in learning. You have every right to complain about unreasonable expectations, harsh grading, and checked-out instructors, but you have no right to assume that your professor is going to pull out a breast, feed you, coddle you, wipe your bum, and lay you to rest in swaddling made out of fancy degrees.

Comment Policy Update

charles Schulz

I hate to get all academic on you all, especially after 4+ years of being pretty open about comments here. It seems that both the influx of overzealous fans on some threads and the linking of this blog by several courses this term, has led to an influx of comment makers who do not read the posts before launching into commentary. I’ve always had to say to one or two people every season, “Please read the whole post before you comment” but I have never had to delete a whole stack of comments because they are both offensive (violating ToS because of name calling or engaging in oppression) but also complete OT. My favorites have been the ones that claim posts about multiple racial groups are “attacking white people” because they never bother to read a) the title of the post or b) the content beyond something quoted to them elsewhere or the first three lines (I’m not sure which it is, probably both) and those saying posts are invalid because “you did not mention [white character here]” in black history month posts. So here is the major change in the comment policy so we are clear:

In order for your comment to be approved on this blog you need to have (1) read the entire post and (2) write a comment that reflects that you have read it even if you are only referring to a single issue or portion.

These guidelines are added to the existing expectation that comments avoid the use of epithets, name calling, swarming, and oppression, as well as be expressed with no or limited use of superlatives and “profanity”. As always, the unspoken but oft held guideline here and in the offshoot conversations that occur on twitter is that while this is not an academic blog any discussion we engage in is meant to move our understanding forward and to encourage thought on the subject and the broadening of perspectives, as well as challenge ideologies or concepts either in the post or the world. If you want to attack or deride people or positions or shout out “I am a fan and nothing my fan universe does can ever be wrong!” you are in the wrong place, but it does not mean that there are not places where you can do that openly and freely. Making an argument means more than saying “I have watched 2 full episodes of this [or] I slept in Superman footie pjs therefore I am right and you are wrong.” Long term fandom means you bring something important to the table not that you are infallible or the thing you like untouchable. For those of you who are new or returning students assigned to read here, becoming a scholar means engaging ideas and discussion not just announcing an opinion based on your experience or preferences.

Most of you are probably scratching your heads and thinking, “Umm hasn’t that always been the way we discuss things here” and the answer is yes. So trust me when I tell you there is a reason I have to write this.

And as a side note, if you are an instructor or TA using this blog for your class and you have not already discussed with your students the meaning of learning communities, netiquette, and engaged discussion, you should. As we know, social media inundates most students’ lives in one way or another and in many of those mediums anything goes. If you do not outline the kind of intellectual work you want them to do when they are using popular media then they will use the default of social media interaction that has led to so much bullying, denigration of others, and utter lack of engagement beyond one’s 5 second quip. As we integrate media into our classrooms we have to be savvy about meaning making and critical thinking otherwise our students walk away with very little new information. Their lack of engagement also means that many of the producers of that media you want them to learn from and with are left to wipe up the mess they leave behind. I enjoy being linked to for academic purposes every term, but I think everyone would get more out of it if students were using the medium as text and not as an extension of Facebook.

What is the Purpose of Grad School Anyway?

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

Image via Wikipedia

There is an interesting conversation about the role of faculty in the demise of academic jobs and commitment to graduate education going on at Historiann’s. The comment section in particular asks some pretty critical questions about the point of graduate school and the exploitation of labor that may supersede the needs of students. You can guess what my comments are but basically they go something like this: for most students who study diversity issues or come from marginalized communities academe has never really been a place they can count on for jobs or tenure. Most departments after all only have 1 woman, 1 person of color, 1 queer person (usually non-trans), and if they can get all three for the price of 1 they will. At the same time, these questions are relevant to all types of students because in this economy no one is really fairing well in the academic job search and some disciplines, including 2 of mine, are practically closed up when it comes to hiring. What does that mean for women and people of color who are entering the university at much higher numbers than others? What does it mean for the intellectual diversity of the university as a whole if everyone who cannot afford to spend 5-9 years on an advanced degree and go home happy they are smarter but unemployed stop attending or stop getting help from the faculty? These are huge issues and I think you all should wade into the water and see what washes clean. Read the post and especially the comment thread here.