04 February 2007

Vanity Fair

Live Blogging from Winter! My ignition has been freezing over the past day or so, as temperatures have plummeted and now sit comfortably below 0 degrees (-17.77C), a number we are not expected to rise above (including our daytime highs) until next week sometime. It is February after all, but still. It is the sort of weather where every car has a cute little puff of exhaust behind it on the expressway (its own powder puff), and where accelerations at green lights mean that huge clouds of the noxious fumes usually invisible to us in more temperate weather engulf cars and pedestrians alike, giving the streetscape the air of a really bad 80s club with a fog machine working overtime. Someone put on Lisa Lisa! It is cold, but since this is Cold City, nothing really stops just because exposed skin will freeze after 10 minutes outside. You only make sure you’re not out (with exposed skin) more than 10 minutes. Stopping into Super Target today, I was confronted by masses of bored Cold City denizens and Superbowl Preppers, so crowding the aisles that, upon discovering that this Target had neither canned garbanzo beans nor my favourite Grapefruit water in stock, left my half-filled wagon in front of the peanut butter and headed for the doors. My misanthropy can be suppressed only so much. I went home and made a coffee, alas, since there was nothing else to drink or eat chez moi.

After last year, I swore to myself that I would never work as hard again, but promises are made to be broken. For whatever reasons, most of which are misplaced in my overflowing email inbox or buried in various piles of “due yesterday” piles either filling the garret or weighing down my office desk, I feel this semester, which we are well into, has been particularly busy, not necessarily with teaching, but with everything else: meetings, colloquia, commissions, professional lunches and dinners, fetching videos hither and thither, responding to email, booking rooms, balancing the checkbook, and of course the endless driving, from points A, B, and C to X, Y, and Z, that is so characteristic of life here, with or without sludgy power steering fluid that makes turning one’s steering wheel a chore or frozen ignitions.

“I would have loved to have gone to Radcliffe too, but Father wouldn’t hear of it! He needed help behind the Notions counter!” Margo Channing once famously intoned, drunkenly, and how I too would love a life of leisure promised in her statement, reading for pleasure and spending considerable sums on exquisite dishwashing detergent and scented candles, making dates for lunch with time left over for a nap before drinks at 8:00 and a late supper. As we all know, however, the problem with the ideal of Radcliffe, at least the Radcliffes, Harvards, Yales, and the rest, of today is that they don’t necessarily guarantee a life of leisure. Now, we all work behind the Notions counter. But the solipsisms of Vanity, the promises of that old life, are still alive, for those of us lucky, clever, rich, or beautiful enough. The other night, Big Sis and I were having one of our usual wide-ranging late night conversations, filled with speculation and paranoia over things small and large. Discussing an old classmate, I mentioned that this person, who at college had been beautiful, rich, earnest, and vaguely politicised in a privileged way (a student type distressing familiar in élite institutions), had recrafted themself (sic) into a personage of some minor media fame, with an incredible vanity website, which I directed my web browser too while on the phone with Big Sis, and gave colour commentary as I clicked through the layers of pages and dreck. We giggled at the pretensions and at the mean anonymous commentary I had left on Amazon regarding one of their incredibly self-centred books, distressingly sandwiched between entries by others praising the bravery of confessing their sins (well, really the parents’ sins, but you know how that one goes…).

Following through on the sort of unaware noblesse oblige common to élite anglophone universities on either side of the Atlantic, as well as a somewhat impressive familial pedigree, this mildly famous offspring turned writer turned inspirational speaker has carved a lucrative niche within the blabosphere that is our public culture. On one hand, Mazel tov! I mean, we all have to make a living, right? It is the progressive politics attached to the exercise in Vanity that is the jagged little pill. Go ahead, make money, but don’t shill some sort of liberatory politics while you charge enormous sums to grace some idiot’s presence with your vacuous, privileged nonsense or offer your incredible insights of privileged consciousness billable by the hour. The website itself is compelling as an exercise in vanity, in the politics of lux et vanitas. The most intriguing, yet simultaneously embarrassing part of the site is a page full of glamour photography, the subject in various poses of thought, introspection, repose. Still looking fantastic after all these years (I got to admit), a quality aided by being rich, I think back to the person I once knew, in a different place and time. The cruel masquerade of an élite education is the fantasy of class equality. Almost twenty years on, it is easier to see the contours of such a misapprehension. “I would have loved to have gone to Radcliffe too…” What a funny twist to have actually gone to Radcliffe and ended up, many years later, again behind the Notions counter, having undergone a transformation more akin to Rodriguez than Smolinsky.

Of course, this is the general malady that surrounds the model of education as socio-economic attainment. It infects our students, warping their expectations beyond what we know is possible, and perhaps more importantly, also affects us, those desultory girls of the Notions counter, in the machine of the institution, crabbing about our students and meetings while we plot our little revenges. We believe it too, even as the reality of the limitation of the transformative model of education is littered about us, not only (or necessarily) in our own careers, but of the dozens left behind, freeway flyers and faceless adjuncts, working in windowless basement classrooms at night, without health insurance and job security. I have been one of those faceless adjuncts, and I have also been the flashy new junior professor full of energy and new ideas, the bitter (according to a comment on Rate My Professors) assistant professor lame-ducked on a cancellation of contract with a dour demeanour and nary a kind word for anything, and now, again, something else: the woman with a past, restless and suave yet sometimes with sharp, glittery steel edges showing. Is this something to be feared or desired? If I can’t tell myself, how can anyone else? All I know is some days I feel like Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest, and others like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, neither the best model for an assistant professor, but models nonetheless. We work with what we have.

This morning I went to a presentation on Black History Month, with a series of speakers from around Cold City, both academics, students, and community folks. I went because I was curious. I went because it was obligatoire. In some senses, it was the standard Black History panel, Activist variety. The usual proclamations of community and empowerment, the usual refusals. The fine line between the educational attainment model and a barely suppressed anti-intellectualism was more intriguing here, close up and personal. Paraphrasing: Get an education, but you’ll never learn what you really need to know in school. White people were discussed often, although as far as I could tell there were in fact only two white persons de veras in attendance. Los Others, the handful of Latinas and Latinos, a smattering of Asian Americans and Native Americans, conveniently disappeared, a bitchy complaint made most recently by Rodriguez. But this is America, and like Jews at Christmastime, you get used to intoning the rituals, miming the behaviours of goyim, even as you feel yourself outside of it, like an out of body experience.

And I thought too, here, under a somewhat endless harangue of this and that which drove me at the end into the frigid air for the delicious warmth of an American Spirit, that this too is Vanity, the vanity of refusal, of play acting the roles we are given: Radical Socialite, Revolutionary Blackness, what have you. It’s all part of the same teatro. It always amazes me when faculty from Research One institutions come to working class universities and community colleges and urge resistance and skepticism, while collecting an honorarium. These two qualities are essential, crucial obviously to the development of a critical mind, but are an aspect of an élite education that working class students could, on some level, do without. For unlike élite students lounging in the commons for hours over their third latte debating whether revolutionary blackness is a possibility, and if so, what shade of eye liner would it wear, my students have jobs, families, and exhaustion. That does not mean they are not capable of higher thought, or even of being brighter or more thoughtful than those élite students with their posh student centres and armies of professional handlers. In my experience, they are all of this and then some. They have no need to experience a world of refusal, because for the most part they already live in one, unlike élite students who need their consciousness raised. To be working class in North America is to be pretty fucking conscious, even if you don’t have the darling little political labels that so appeal to intellectuals, as they roam the aisles of Whole Foods.

What it is to say is that working class students could do without the pablum, without the vanity of refusal that elevates nonsensical dissent with virtue, without the romance of resistance which is fine when you have rich parents or a trust fund to fall back on, but does one little good when one leaves the ivory gate and realises with a start that one needs to find a job, and quick. It took me two years to catch up to the élite students at Prestigious Eastern U. I arrived not knowing how to write a college essay, not knowing how to conduct myself in class discussions, not knowing how to perform the mimesis so essential to the successful undergraduate career. I learned of course. I never said I wasn’t a clever girl. But those two very expensive years went missing. My methodology with my current students gives them what I think they deserve, by right: an élite education. Not to turn my students into Little Lord and Lady Fauntleroys, but to acknowledge them as intellectuals, as thinkers, as citizens in a democratic republic. I do not play picture games in class nor do I dumb down my speech or expectations. I use big words. This is a dangerous method. The usual critique is that such an approach risks alienating one’s working class students, with the ulterior meaning being that they won’t be able to understand you. How uncouth to actually say aloud, no matter how deeply felt by conservatives trimming educational budgets because why should working people get an education anyhow, as well as leftists and their Ed Department babble bastardised from misreadings of Freire. Education is fundamentally about transformation. If it’s not, then why bother, in the end? Stay home. There’s something better on TV.

If education is indeed attainment, of various sorts, then let’s make it mean something, even in the face of our ambivalence. Let’s give our students the skills and empowerment of speaking and writing well, of being able to parse complicated arguments and complex conditions, such as the nexus of revolutionary Blackness. Of teaching by example and teaching by learning from our students. Sloganeering feels good, but in the end it is not an intellectual response. And I, for one, am not in the mood to apologise for being an intellectual, even if such a pursuit has landed me behind the Notions counter, while the darling children of the élite, for whom an intellectual life is a given, pose for their close-ups and rake in the speaker’s fees, their eyes saying, in dramatic sepia, "I am beautiful, rich, and feel your pain" (Now pay me). Or, alternatively, those trained in the dark arts of intellectualism who refuse it, seek to return to an "oh shucks, just folks" commonality, seek to become organic in the worst pastoralist sense. It might suck to be an intellectual, but no one said life was a free lunch. We all have our burdens to bear, but how do we engineer our lives not only to share the load but make the best of what we have and attempt to help others as well without resorting to either economic brutalism or nanny state blather? This seems to me to be the primary challenge of the introspective intellectual.

Then again, maybe this is my variation of virtuous Vanity, minus either the glamour shots or warm blanket of sloganeering. Vanity, the Hardscrabble version. I am cynical enough to realise this. But if one must be vain, I would prefer that it be in the trenches of interaction and teaching and learning and involvement with students and ideas and challenges, in work, than from the sterile comfort of a lectern or touchy-feely for-profit website. I don’t want to feel my students’ pain, I want them to leave it behind, or at least develop mechanisms for containing it. And I trust them enough to be able to make those leaps of faith, or at the very least make their own decisions as to whether they are capable of it. One thing I do know for sure: I wake up every working day and thank the Virgin I don’t have to wipe the asses of the privileged boys and girls of Sadistic College, Prestigious Eastern U, and their ilk, who turn their critical educations into either service at the feet of Mammon or become shills for consciousness raising at a profit, a self-indulgent cynicism, whose signature slogan could be “Saying Nothing, Standing for Something.”


Jonathan said...

Beautifully done.

I moved in the opposite direction -- from working class students to more elite undergrads. I found I couldn't pour it on my students at my previous school as I might have wanted, but I made them slog through enough hard material to show them that they can do it.

And let's face it. Even the most working class college student is not a surrogate for Freire's peasants. Whoeer first dreams that his work applied to college students: what a spectacular, self-congratulatory, phantastic misreading that was!

undine said...

This is just excellent, from the self-congratulatory elite speakers encouraging resistance to the misreadings of Freire. "Vanity of refusal"--I hope you're putting this in a book.

Mr. B. said...

Oso Rara,

Your blog's so beautiful.

I thought you'd want to fix:

"...which I directed my web browser too while on the phone with Big Sis..."

Please delete this comment after reading.

All the best (atb),


Anonymous said...

This is excellent and completely true. Thank you for writing it. I love your blog. I wish you would put these into a book. I would buy and treasure it.
I hope the new year brings you all good things.

Horace said...

"Mis-readings of Freire"

[Raising hand} Guilty and at the same time, dissenting.

I heard Gerald and Cathy Graff shilling their new book on templates for academic argumentation the other day, and at the very least, my Freirian reductions proved useful in explicating why I thought their method was full-to-brimming of merde.

I've taught both sets of students, and the idea of education as attainment unsettles me as much as the idea of the university as labor supply source, or as preparation for market participation unsettles me.

But it unsettled me when I was wiping privileged asses at Founding Father U. as much as it does here in Appalachia, and I talk about resistance and try in tiny ways to teach towards it now even as I did then. The difference is I hoped than that talk about privilege would create some self critique and openness to change not in their best interest, while now, I hope for resistance from my students, not against them.

My point, I guess, is that both teaching gigs were jobs, and doing ethical pedagogical work in spaces of privilege (while potentially more compromised) is as important as doing it in spaces where privilege is merely a distant mirage...

Alas, I ramble. Carry on.

Professor Zero said...

The book idea is a really good one.
Of course, now that I hear of it, I realize it may be what you have been planning, all along.

jolblon said...

I can't wait to read your book, OR.

Tenured Radical said...

Your posts are things of beauty.


Littlemilk said...

"To be working class in North America is to be pretty fucking conscious, even if you don’t have the darling little political labels that so appeal to intellectuals, as they roam the aisles of Whole Foods."

OK. My spine just jerked. You sang that like the 15th refrain of a praise song at a county line revival (during an August moon, under a big multi-coloured tent).

I agree.

As for overseas, I had a teaching gig where I taught both working class German students destined to be mechanics and extremely rich/privileged European Elite students from different countries. And, even though the ages were different, the students were about the same in receiving information about the larger world . . . some nudging and pulling naturally, but the tension was about the same.

I found the great divide to be between the faculties and administrations.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it: “I would have loved to have gone to Radcliffe too, but Father wouldn’t hear of it! He needed help behind a (instead of "the") Notions counter!”?

Anonymous said...

And by the way, we don't all now work behind the Notions counter...there are a lot of silverspooners who have no idea where "Notions" even come from...they don't even have to know what "Notions" are. The maid takes care of that stuff.

La Suegra said...

"The other night, Big Sis and I were ... filled with speculation and paranoia over things small and large."
My Lord, I got a couple of mentions(!)...albeit, not necessarily that flattering...but mentions nonetheless! I guess they'll count as my Valentine's gift.