Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.
Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.
I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.
These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).
The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.
I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.
But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.
Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.
Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.
I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.
Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).