Why can’t we be friends

13 10 2013

I’m not friends with my students.

Friendly—yes, but hanging out with them, exchanging casual e-mails and texts, inviting them to read this blog? No.

I’m not opposed to becoming friends with students, but it’s not something I look for, and, pretty clearly, not something my students are looking for. Perhaps had I remained at a more traditional university, one in which the students were not so clearly focused on the vocational aspects of their education, I might have had more students who wanted to hang out and talk theory, which in turn might have led to friendships.

Either way, it’s fine.

I had ignored the Slate article on why befriending one’s students is a bad idea both because I haven’t and, more importantly, I thought it would be a typically bumptious Slate piece in which everything the reader thought she knew about the world is declared wrong.

So tiring, that.

But a piece highlighted by Jonathan Bernstein, in which political science professor Steve Green notes that he regularly shares bits of his life with his students, prompted me to go back and read the Slate piece. It turns out the problem is less with befriending students than with, yes, being open and friendly with them.

When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives—particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics—there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviors. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behavior.

Slate writer Scott Jaschik notes that the study authors caution that instructor style influences 20 percent of “uncivil behavior” (packing up books early, texting), which means most of this behavior is outside of the control of the prof. Still, 20 percent ain’t beanbag, so if one wants a civil classroom, anything which detracts from credibility might work against that.

I don’t disagree with this. If one wants to establish authority in the classroom (as I most certainly do) without reverting to mere authoritarianism along the lines of “because I said so!” (as I most certainly do not), then establishing that one has the chops to stand in front of student, i.e., demonstrating one’s credibility, is the way to go. The reason you should listen to me is not because I am in charge but because I have the ability to teach you, which means you can learn something from me.

So am I wrong in thinking that telling my students, most of whom are first-generation college students from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds that I was a first-generation college student from a working-/lower-middle class background is a kind of encouragement to them? Am I demonstrating an ability to speak across apparent boundaries or am I, in transgressing those boundaries, reducing my credibility?

As Steve Greene notes, “Sharing about your personal life and sharing things that make you seen less competent are entirely different kettles of fish.” There’s also the question of whether sharing how you messed up, academically or pedagogically and then sorted it out demonstrates incompetence or competence.

Oh, and there’s the rather significant issue of the connection between uncivil behavior and learning. I have no problem believing that a student who’s texting isn’t paying attention, but is the student who isn’t texting paying attention? As for packing up books, well, that’s may be less about incivility than about needing to get to a class across campus and wanting to hit the bathroom/snack shop before that next class.

I want to be an effective teacher in a way which makes sense to me, so as a generally casual person an über-formal approach probably won’t work. I also know that the students aren’t there to learn all about me but all about the subject I’m teaching, so any storytelling ought to be minimized and only used to illustrate a pedagogical point.

Yeah, openness about oneself can go too far in terms of self-indulgence or indiscretion, but insofar as I take an open approach toward knowledge about the world, that I think that open approach is the best approach, I am skeptical that an appropriate openness with the students will cause their minds to snap shut.

When I tell my students on the first day that I don’t take myself too seriously (which is almost true) but I do take the work seriously (which is really true), I recognize that I may be sanding away some of my own authority in a way which dulls my own credibility, and thus may increase their skepticism of me.

That’s not such a bad thing: let them question me, which gives me the chance, in responding to them, to demonstrate that I do know what I’m doing, and that they might just want to follow along, to see what comes next.





Come out, come out wherever you are

26 07 2012

I’m half-out as a bisexual.

Andrew Sullivan has been banging away at the fact that the late Sally Ride chose not to come out as a lesbian while she lived, and getting a fair amount of push-back from readers; he’s holding firm.

My first reaction to his original column was What a dick.

I read his column every day and link to it with some regularity, so I’m not unfamiliar with his habit of making everything about him. (It’s annoying, but it’s his blog, and, frankly, I’m probably even more guilty of the Me! Me! M-Fucking-E ME! approach to blogging. So.)

Anyway, that initial reaction was along the lines of He really doesn’t get how hard it is for women in male-dominated fields; sexism piled with homophobia might have been too much. I modified that reaction somewhat as I considered that she could have come out after she left the space program, could have come out in the past few years, and that maybe it would have been better had she been as out to the general public as she apparently was with intimates.

Still, I think Sullivan does discount both the dynamics of sexism and temperamental differences regarding revelations about one’s private life. He implies that she labored in the closet, and that now we know that her real lesson to young lesbans was and is: duck and cover.

But we don’t, in fact, know that this was her lesson. Just because she wasn’t out in a dramatically public way doesn’t have to mean that her “real” lesson was “hide away”. There is, after all, a difference between discretion and shame.

As unfair as I think Sullivan is in his autopsy of Ride’s relationship to her public persona—he didn’t know her, didn’t know her motives—I do nonetheless have to wonder about my own half-outing.

I could be cute, I suppose, and say that as a bisexual I could only be half-out, but what I really mean is that I’m out to some (all of my friends in New York & some of my colleagues, some of my non-New York friends), not to others (family, students), generally ambiguous in reference to any (hypothetical, sigh) partners, and will answer truthfully if asked directly by someone who I don’t think is crossing any lines in the query.

Who I don’t think is crossing any lines: This is the kicker, isn’t it? What if a student would ask? A boss? Would that person be crossing a line?

Or should I be the one who crosses the line by coming out to, say, my students and everyone I work with? I have no fear of discrimination at work, and no great worries of adverse reactions from my students, but I haven’t come out fully at the office or in the classroom* in part because I don’t think it’s any of their business. I like my privacy, and I don’t think openness in some areas of my life requires me to display every aspect of my life.

(*There’s also the matter of the appropriateness of revealing personal information in the classroom. I do offer bits from my life if they’re relevant to the subject at hand, so it’s not out of the question that my own sexuality would be relevant in some discussions; just coming out a propos of nothing—Hi, I’m your professor and I’m bisexual!—would manifestly not be the way to go.)

But—and here is where Sullivan and everyone else who argues for the urgency of coming out makes sense to me—by not saying anything, I allow others to draw false inferences of my sexuality, a falseness under which I may duck and cover and which has social implications. I am uneasy, still, with the inferences others may draw if I come out as bisexual, even as I am also uneasy with the assumption by others that I’m straight.

My reasons for not slamming that closet door behind me, then, has less to do with social opprobrium than my own fear of the personal reactions to a personal revelation. I don’t think anyone in my family would really care all that much, or, to be honest, really be surprised—any surprise might be that I’m bisexual and not a lesbian—nor do I think that the few friends who I haven’t told would care much, either; if they would, their distress would likely center on how long it took me to tell them, not what I told them.

And, of course, that it’s been a number of years since I’ve become bisexual only makes the conversation now even more awkward: Why didn’t you say something earlier?

Sigh.

I struggle with what to reveal and what to tuck away in so many things; unlike almost every other of those things, however, this one is not just about me.





What’s up with the weird wonder?

11 10 2011

I blame Greil Marcus.

Yes, Lynda Barry kicked off this theme for the blog, by my ears were first pricked reading Marcus in The City Pages, which is when I first encountered the notion of “weird old America”.

Weird old America: what a wonderful phrase.

Now, does it matter that the actual phrase was “old, weird America” and has something to do with Bob Dylan and basement tapes and an invisible republic? From a librarian point of view, yes, but from the necessity of having one’s ears pricked and interest piqued and thought provoked, not really.

In any case, it gave me an insight into this country that I had never previously considered: that this is a profoundly strange joint, and that maybe, just maybe, I could ease up a bit in my assessments of the US of A. Or maybe not “ease up” so much as “open up”, to let myself see beyond the cold, clear lines of politics and carefully sculpted narratives into the brambles and crannies of these American cultures.

I knew Americans weren’t necessarily more rational or normal than any other people, but that’s how we talked of ourselves, as Americans. To be American was to be free and brave, to live the American Dream, be all we could be, etc. It is a narrative of striving and effort and independence and normality, and while there might be plenty of individuals and maybe even “subcultures” which members deviated from this clear bright line, those deviants were no part of the culture.

Marcus’s phrase (in my misremembering) helped me to see that, ehhhhn, all of those individuals and subcultures who wonder away from that line are also America. They aren’t artifacts or zoo creatures, “outsider artists” who exist to confirm the rightness of conformity or who may only comment upon, but not participate in, this American Life, but are themselves woven into the warped woof of our cultural fabric, that the normal is as warped as the rest of it.

I’m getting too cute with words (one of the side effects of dipping into weird wonder); I mean to say, Marcus fucked with my sense of direction and perception. I took this nation’s superpowerness for granted and Marcus said, quietly, not quite. He undermined my view from above, and with the invocation of “weird old America” gestured toward all these pieces of our lives that don’t quite fit a clean narrative but fit, nonetheless.

You can still be angry, he allowed, but you can be affectionate, too. Open up, enlarge yourself, appreciate what’s there.

Some folks need to stiffen their spines, need a reminder to squint at what they’re told or take a hammer to what is, but I need the nudge to take it easy. I like hard lines and sharp angles and interrogations and prosecutions; to think is to critique.

Except that it’s not, not the whole of thought; that’s where the wonder comes in.

And the weird, the weird can be the lever that cracks open the wonder.





Everything everything everything

28 09 2011

Over the hill. Pulled the plug but not yet circling the drain. Old broad. Over half a life gone.

No, I’m not old, nor do I feel old, but I ain’t young, either.

When I was young, I wanted everything. I wanted California and mountains and oceans and Hollywood and a cabin in the woods and nature and cities and people and space and I wanted to sing and dance and act and write and draw and paint and ride dirt bikes and horses and swim and sled and oh if only I could fly, wouldn’t it be lovely to fly?

Now, I am a ma’am with a Ph.D. and I don’t know what I want, don’t even know how to think about what I want. I was so open, then, to everything; how could I not want it?

And now? Ha: you know the answer.

But I still wonder.

“Dancing” from One! Hundred! Demons! By Lynda Barry

“Dancing” from One! Hundred! Demons! By Lynda Barry p. 2

Do you know Lynda J. Barry?

I started reading Ernie Pook’s Comeek in The Isthmus, the Madison alt-weekly, when I was in college. Marlys and Maybonne and Freddie and everyone in that weird little world made me laugh and wonder and sometimes, sometimes, they pierced me clean through.

I found Marlys Magazine again online, then it got stripped way bare, and now it’s back, in full splendor.

Lynda J. Barry draws what she wants, writes what she wants, lives how she wants.

I don’t know if she knows what she wants, but it doesn’t seem to matter.





Let it be

4 08 2011

I always call on birthdays. And this was a big one.

No, not the president’s (tho’, since we’re here, happy birthday Mr. President); my mom’s.

She’s seventy.

That could be old, I guess, but it’s tough for me to think of her (or my dad, 73 in December) as old. They golf and take vacations and go swimming and take walks and work out and play cards and watch movies and, I dunno, do all the stuff they’ve done for the past thirty or forty years.

Maybe more slowly, but, hell, a couple of years ago they went to Costa Rica and whipped down a zip line.

Anyway, my pop got my mom a Nook for her birthday. I told her about The Unexpected Neighbor.

Which was unexpected.

I didn’t think I’d tell ’em because I thought, well, they’re not going to read this thing on their computers. Plus, there’s the link to my profile, which includes a link to this blog.

My family doesn’t know about this blog.

Now, it’s not a problem if my mom follows the link and finds this blog. When I started the blog it was VERY IMPORTANT to me that I retain my pseudonymity, but over the years I’ve loosened up a lot. (And, obviously, in posting the link to The Unexpected Neighbor I made it very easy for anyone to find out who I am.) Since I had decided that I wouldn’t say anything behind my big red cube that I wouldn’t in front of my name, traversing the distance between my given name and my absurd one isn’t that great.

Still, I like that distance.

Anyone runs a search on me, this wouldn’t be the first thing to pop up. (Although I don’t know that I’d be the first thing to pop up if I ran a search on my name: it’s not uncommon. Anyway, I don’t know, because it’s been, mmm, five years? ten? since I ran a search on my name. Some shit I don’t need to worry about.) And, to extend this, I like having that space between my teaching self and my musing/ranting self. Finally, however much I’ve given myself over to the cyber-machine, I still don’t care to make it easy for the Googleplex to connect my absurd self to the rest of my life.

So, what if my mom or pop or anyone else in my family reads my blog? Eh, I don’t know. They’d be bored by the politics and likely put off by the swearing and they might wonder about my wonderings.

I don’t know that I want them wondering about my wonderings but, really, isn’t it long past time for me to stop policing what others may think of me?

I mean, let’s be real: I’m always going to try to police what people think of me, but I’m way past knowing that others will think what they think, regardless.

That’s how it’s always been, hasn’t it? You do what you do and everyone else will do what they do and sometimes it matters more than anything and sometimes it doesn’t matter at all.

So I’ll walk the beat and then let it be.

Absurdly, of course.

______

h/t  Susan Wise Bauer, for this aptly-timed post





Won’t get fooled again

20 05 2009

I was going to post something light, whimsical, even.

Then I read the paper.

The report on abuse in Irish schools was released earlier today, and offers up yet more horrifying stories of beatings, rape, humiliation, and all-around violence. Unfortunately, the Christian Brothers successfully sued the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse to keep the names of the violent criminals its members out of the report, so justice, so long in coming, will be delayed even more.

From the Executive Summary:

More than 90% of all witnesses who gave evidence to the Confidential Committee reported being physically abused while in schools or out-of-home care. Physical abuse was a component of the vast majority of abuse reported in all decades and institutions and witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives. They frequently described casual, random physical abuse but many wished to report only the times when the frequency and severity were such that they were injured or in fear for their lives. In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water. Witnesses reported being beaten in front of other staff, residents, patients and pupils as well as in private. Physical abuse was reported to have been perpetrated by religious and lay staff, older residents and others who were associated with the schools and institutions. There were many reports of injuries as a result of physical abuse, including broken bones, lacerations and bruising.

And, of course, these children were rarely believed, or blamed for the torment visited upon them by both clerical and lay authorities. Again, from the ES:

Contemporary complaints were made to the School authorities, the Gardaí, the Department of Education, Health Boards, priests of the parish and others by witnesses, their parents and relatives. Witnesses reported that at times protective action was taken following complaints being made. In other instances complaints were ignored, witnesses were punished, or pressure was brought to bear on the child and family to deny the complaint and/or to remain silent. Witnesses reported that their sense of shame, the power of the abuser, the culture of secrecy and isolation and the fear of physical punishment inhibited them in disclosing abuse.

I saw a clip on the BBC of a man who had survived his years in the schools. He looked to be in his fifties or sixties, but the anguish was fresh.

According to the BBC, ‘The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, said those who perpetrated violence and abuse should be held to account, “no matter how long ago it happened”.’

So tell the good Brothers to release the damned names themselves. Don’t abandon that anguished man again.

I’ve been reading a number of different reactions to the release of the Commission report, including, dishearteningly, those few who argue that the abuse ‘wasn’t that bad’. Many more commentators blame the Catholic Church, with the blame running from the hierarchy to celibacy to gay priests to the heresy of Jansenism.

I’m not particularly interested in defending the Church—goddess knows it has more than enough lawyers to defend itself. But I don’t think the problem is with Catholicism per se, not least when inquiries into abuses in Australia and Canada revealed similar problems in Anglican-run institutions.

It’s not even a problem with Christianity or religion. There was recently an article in the St. Petersburg Times about the abuse, even death, of inmates at the Florida School for Boys. (Go here for the multi-media report.) The state knew there were problems, knew for decades there were problems, but little was done.

No one was charged for the torture and death of these boys.

Should I mention Guantanamo? Abu Ghraib? The prison outside of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan? Hell, what about prisons within the US?

The dynamics of abuse in these various places is not all the same, but they do share one very important element in common: Unchecked authority.

Both parts of that phrase are important: Many of those [edit to add: who] abused were authority figures themselves, or granted authority to so abuse by those in positions superior to them. And those who didn’t condone the abuse itself nonetheless shielded these men (and in the case of the Irish Sisters of Mercy, women) from the civil and criminal consequences of their actions.

Oh, sure, Lindy England and Charles Grainor and Fathers Geoghan and Shanley were tried and sent to prison, but the problems of unchecked authority go far beyond these few so-called bad apples.

No, the abuse in borne of the righteousness of such authority, be it clerical or civic righteousness. These kids were delinquents or whores or incorrigible; prisoners are the lowest of the low, animals, threats to society; terrorists are, well, terrorists. In all cases ‘harsh treatment’ is acceptable, encouraged, even. How else are they to learn? How else are they to know who’s in charge? How else are they to know what’s good for them?

And it is such righteousness which allows abuse to continue, unchecked. Those in charge are holding the line, keeping us safe, willing to do the dirty work we all want done but don’t want to know about. They are good men and women; heroes, even.

Well, fuck that. I’m not an anarchist—I believe in authority, properly exercised—but if those in authority cannot, in fact, exercise it properly, then why bother? If those in authority escape prosecution (almost everyone), retain their licenses to practice law (Gonzalez, Yoo), remain on the bench (Bybee), get booted upward to a position in the Vatican (Cardinal Law), or get a school named after them (Arthur G. Dozier, head of the Florida School for Boys during the worst of the abuses), why the fuck should any of us respect this so-called authority?

And walking away or getting past all this or not looking backward or playing the blame game? No. Open it up, open it all up, and let those who authorized this abuse justify themselves in public, before the public, and, perhaps, before a jury.

Otherwise we’re just stuck with Meet the new boss, same as the old boss—be that boss a priest, a cardinal, a superintendent, a CIA official, or a president.

Open it up, open it all up.





That was the river/This is the sea

11 05 2009

Why bother with openness and honesty? Really, what’s the problem with a little subterfuge?

This, from a woman who blogs pseudonymously, who refers to FelineCity and Bummerville rather than the real places—and who’s trying to come to terms with life in general and her life in particular.

I intiated this blog with the notion of playing with ideas, of being able to turn things over in my hand without having to worry about referees and journals and publications. I took myself off the tenure track on purpose (another post, perhaps), but didn’t want to take myself out of the realm of political theory.

And it was to be about the ideas, not about me. But it’s become about me. I’ve set up another blog for my students, and some of my ideas about politics have migrated or will migrate to that site. It’s not that I’ve given up on politics and theory on this site, but my, ah, considerations of existence have become more prominent than expected, which means the considerations of my existence have also become more prominent.

This is not a problem. But there is the matter of my pseudonymity, and of the people in my life. I am protective of both my and their privacy, but the dynamics behind that protectiveness vary. While I don’t reveal my name, I’m more than willing to scrutinize my own actions—camouflage in service to revelation.

But I don’t want to hurt anyone else, and don’t particular want to reveal aspects of others’ lives that they may not want revealed. It’s one thing to relate a story in person to a friend; it’s quite another to send it out into the wild west of cyberspace, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. An empathic conversation in an intimate setting could simply devolve into bloggy fodder for someone else’s machine.

Yet what if your story is intertwined with someone else’s? Lori Gottlieb wrote an essay in this past week’s NYTimes about the complications of writing about one’s mother. If you write about your childhood, she notes, it’s inevitable that parents will make an appearance—and that they may not like it. She quotes Susan Cheever, who edited out a particular anecdote about her mother at her mother’s request: ‘Now I’d probably say, ‘It’s your life, but it’s my book.’ ‘

Does one’s book trump another’s life? Perhaps it would be more straightforward to say It’s your life, but it’s my life, too—and we don’t get to edit each other’s lives.

In Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley writes about his famous parents, Pat and William F., in ways both affectionate and morbid. Given what I had read on Crunchy Con, I had expected a scathing account of their parenting, but the revelations of their, ah, quirks as Mum and Pup seemed to conceal even more. Still, should Christo (as WFB referred to him) have written so expansively of his father’s drug habits, or his habit of unzipping and peeing out the car?

On the other hand, C. wrote a beautiful essay about one of her few memories of her mother, a beloved woman who died when C. was very young. There’s a context to this tale which is not explicitly mentioned (namely, the rest of C.’s life), but the story stands on its own, with a thin and sharp sorrow slicing through the poignancy of the tale. I’d heard it before, amidst a long conversation, but written on its own it’s taken on a resonance I didn’t hear amidst the crowd of spoken words.

I’m so glad she wrote it. It is a story which deserves its flight.

Still. I don’t write about my parents, with the exception of the posts on my dad’s stroke. We’ve had our difficulties, and I have made my own kind of peace with my folks—a peace which would not be served by debriding old wounds. They’ve healed enough; let them be.

Do I betray my writing in my silence? This is something memoirists often cop to: We’re writers, we betray, it’s what we do. I can’t speak to anyone’s sincerity in so copping, but it seems glib, a kind of cheap badge of courage: Look at all I’m willing to destroy in order to create!

I am not at all willing to destroy my parents. I’m not famous, they’re not famous, and the chances of them ever coming across anything I’ve written is very small, but I’m not willing to pick at them publicly. (Privately? Well, that’s what therapy was for. . . .) They’re decent people, and they don’t deserve that.

Would I write about them after they die? And would that be better or worse? After all, it is precisely because they’d be beyond my words that they’d be unable to respond to them. I don’t know what I’ll do, not least because I don’t know who I’ll be when they do die, and what I’ll need and want when they are gone. It is entirely possible, however, that I’ll never write much about them.

Is that protectiveness? Cowardice? Exhaustion? Yes.

But what of my own life? Why not reveal myself? Here, again, I refer to a post C. wrote, on self-stories which include ‘too much information’, in this case about an incident at a museum in Amsterdam. It’s funny. But it’s more than funny; it’s also a light she shines in her own face:

The reason I used my real name on that story is because I wanted to commit myself to being who I am, no matter what that means. Now I look back at myself 10 plus years ago with affection and exasperation. Can I really follow through? Can I really be that brave?

I don’t know that I can be that brave (even if no one is reading me). Oh, I could dismiss it all as ‘rash’, but I think C. is right on the need to commit oneself, no matter what.

This, after all, is the ancient understanding of courage: Not the exposure itself, but the willingness to stand fast, to hold to the courage of one’s convictions.

Eh, maybe I’ll half-ass it, no longer patrolling the perimeter for security breaches, allowing for the possibility that my identity will sneak across the border.

Not brave, not courageous, but a start.