Respect in classrooms vs. crap outside them

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!).

xmas 1988
Christmas sweaters, 1988

 

Battles lost

awp-sunset

I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

awp-card

Ligeia’s fleas

fem-eyesThe following fragment was received telepathically from our feline boarder Poe on October 27th, Black Cat Day, about a month after my mother-in-law’s cat joined the household.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how or when I became aware of Female’s* residence in the empty bedroom. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, the singular way her belly sways as she waddles on toothpick legs, and the thrilling eloquence of her quacks and growls, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.

There is one dear topic, however, on which wit fails me not. It is the alluring beauty of Female. In stature she is tiny, although astonishingly rotund and possessive of the kibble upon which I had heretofore made solitary repast. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the supreme crankiness, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible thumping of her footfall. She comes and departs as a cannonball. Her loveliness is the radiance of a catnip-dream. Yet her features are not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I see that the features of Ligeia–I mean Female–are not of a classic regularity –I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examine the contour of the short fuzzy forehead –faultless. I regard the whiskers, ivory and sable–her bared teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray that emanates from the reading lamp. And then I peer into the large eyes of Female.

They are, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of Felis catus. They are even fuller than the unnaturally azure eyes of the newborn Florida panther. The hue of the orbs is the most brilliant bronze, foxed with brown spots. The “strangeness,” however, must be referred to the expression. The expression of the eyes of Female! How for long hours have I struggled to fathom it! Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me ominous meteors, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

The uneasiness of that expression transferred itself to me until my own shaggy mane itched. And too, too slowly, understanding dawned. The obsessive scratching and rolling on Indian carpets–the chemical stink she bore home from a mysterious expedition by automobile–the humans’ alarm and fussing with sprays and tinctures–my beloved’s moon-white dandruff and the rare irritability of her temper–Female has a persistent case of fleas. And yet, helplessly drawn, I continue to stalk her during her restless wanderings, scrambling from piano to coffee table to evade her claws, scratching in devoted mimicry, until naptime doth us part.

Fin

*Female rhymes with Emily. The reason my mother-in-law thought this name funny remains shrouded in impenetrable mists. The reason I thought transcribing this tale a wise use of time, while stacks of grading loom, also remains veiled, except that this dare from Shenandoah worries me like a parasite. And I am beside myself with distress about some sex-based bullying at work, which I spoke up against, then the Title IX officer launched a formal investigation of the perpetrator which is proceeding whether or not I help, so I’m helping, without hope of a good resolution, because my university will protect its own legal interests, as it always has, counting on me to remain better-behaved than the bully, or at least not counting my avoidance of meetings and general stress and alienation as a significant cost–anyway, I’m writing Poe tales to escape the fact that I’m living one, sleepless and upset all the time, which is maybe what Poe himself did too, come to think of it. It’s uncanny, too, to watch a larger and more noxious version of it all play out on a national stage, and I don’t think I’m an unreliable narrator projecting my sense of endangeredness onto the political weather. I really, really wish I could just work and help other people work, and all of us could thrive according to our will and talents, but I suppose such a paradise has never existed, for most of us. Consider this post the unfathomable expression in a female’s eyes.

At any rate, some work of a few months back rises from the dead: my latest Kenyon Review micro-review is up, this time of Jon Tribble’s new book. A review of the new Millay edition appears in American Literary History (scroll down). 

Finally, Happy Halloween, with thanks to the friends who are pulling me through the madness somehow. Safety, justice, and chocolate to all.

 

Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy:

I write my way out of it

One of my talisman poems is section 6 from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall.” The poet imagines herself as a worm, emblem of lowly persistence, among mist-jeweled grass blades. Her mantra: “I profit/ by every calamity;/ I eat my way out of it.” The calamity for H.D. was living in London during the Blitz.

The apocalyptic trilogy of my summer 2012 is on a much smaller scale: the death of my father; workplace disaster (more to come on that subject); and, just for fun, that derecho last weekend tearing open a beautiful four-story maple and dumping half on our roof and porch. Damage from the latter wasn’t terrible, but I’ve already had enough of insurance, repairs, and power outages. And the dark green canopy I once faced from my desk is stripped away in favor of a long, jagged wound of pale wood.

So, yes, I’ve been eating my way through psychic debris—that’s a family tradition. Wheelers don’t waste away from anxiety and grief; we gird our loins against it with peach pie. But so far, I’m also having a good writing summer. Some of the pages I’m churning out are just letters, though I’m enjoying even the promotion reviews. I just wrote a supporting document for a project to digitize Columbia’s modernist-era audio holdings: some of those strange metal disks can only be played from the inside out, or by the application of a cactus needle to the grooves! I’m drafting poems, revising slightly fermented ones, and working on essays. I expected to descend into brain fog, but I’m not. Writing is consoling me. It reminds me of what I care about, what I’m good at, what I have some modicum of control over.

I also just finished the galleys for The Receptionist and Other Tales, my forthcoming speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima. This stage involved a little re-writing but mostly careful reading, with the help of wonderful Aqueduct editor Kath Wilham: are the italics and capitalization consistent? How often may I use the word “moron”?

Drafting “The Receptionist,” though, was an act of survival. I was a new department head, never an easy gig, but a few factors made it harder—bureaucracy ramped up sharply in those years and many systems needed reinvention. Easily the worst aspect of the job, though, was having a lousy relationship with the dean, a person I wanted to look to for strategic advice and moral support. I was a friend of his predecessor, a woman treated badly by university administration, and while I wrote to him immediately that I in no way held him responsible for that debacle and looked forward to working with him, he clearly didn’t like me for having objected to those events. The years immediately following his arrival were also terrible for women on this campus and this time he was partly responsible. He had inherited an associate dean from his precursor, another smart and industrious woman, and I watched him undercut her at meetings, listened to her accounts of physical intimidation, and tried to be her ally when he nudged her out of the position before her term was up. I saw him put his arm around other female professors and staff and watched them shrink back. I talked to colleagues from various departments who felt impotently furious about his ominous or badgering notes. He spoke to people in derogatory ways more often than any administrator I have ever worked with. A lot of these incidents were trivial, in isolation. Further, I’m not saying everything this dean touched was poison; he actually gave me better raises than other deans, and even the new red tape isn’t all bad. Better bureaucracy than back-room deals. And some people worked well with him, a few of them women. He was sometimes pleasant, even to me.

Even having received so many anguished confidences about this dean’s behavior, I was still somehow shocked to be on the receiving end as chair. I would be chastised for missing reports handed in weeks earlier (organization was not his strong suit), or told I was in the wrong in a conflict before he learned the details. The dean seemed to be scanning for weaknesses to pounce on while my achievements were invisible. Then, during a tenure and promotions meeting, when I was making a point he disagreed with, he started poking me under the table, jabbing me in the arm. I wish I’d yelled, “Stop touching me!” Instead, I shut up, pulled back. You know the story. I told his supervisor, the provost. She said no one had ever complained about such behavior from him before, and I wouldn’t want her to fire the guy for that, would I?

So, I invented a campus and a set of oddball academics. The main character, an administrative assistant and mother of two young boys, is obsessed with fantasy tropes, so when the dean at her campus commits some very different kinds of malfeasance (the kind you do get fired for), she starts thinking of him as the Dark Lord and wondering if she can be a Hero. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, I stayed home until I’d drafted a canto and mapped out the next; around ten o’clock I’d head in to triage demoralizing emails. The craziness of the project, a brilliant secret joke, sustained me until I could create a buffer against toxic interactions by becoming an ordinary professor again.

In early June, about a week after my father died, one of those real-life time-for-a-change-of-leadership emails came through. The dean would be relieved of his responsibilities as of July 1 and join my department (he was a literature professor elsewhere before he began deaning around). It’s like a big storm that clears the air but leaves a hunk of deadwood on your house.

So how do I write my way out of it? I’m working on it.