Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

Last week I wrote a post about the ambivalence I felt as a PhD accepting a teaching job whose value would never be acknowledged by my graduate program. Three hours after posting, I was added to the University of Chicago English Department’s PhD Alumni listserv. (I graduated eleven months ago.)

The overworked department administrators were always kind to me, and I do appreciate being added to the list; however, the immediate result of the email was acute arrhythmia. The next day I got the cold sweats when the University of Chicago Alumni page retweeted my post, despite the bump in pageviews.

When I wrote the original post, I wasn’t actually thinking all that much about the university, honestly. I was thinking of, and writing for, my fellow in-betweeners, my colleagues in confusion, “the ones who left,” as I strangely think of us, even though not all of us did. We are the ones Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius euphemistically call “post-academics” in their terrific book about finding careers outside of academia–which is published, in a hilarious bit of irony, by the University of Chicago Press.

One of my post-academic compatriots had a therapist who had herself been through grad school hell. She had a sign posted in her office that read, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Anyone whose anxiety issues first appeared in grad school will tell you that this is literally the funniest joke in the world. And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.

* * * * *

Immediately after posting a couple of days ago, I realized with a jolt that I had failed to mention the many, many skilled and hardworking teachers in post-secondary education, professors working everywhere from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to Research I institutions. It’s not because I don’t know any great and humane teachers in the academy. I know tons. They are my former professors, my acquaintances and close friends, my family members, even. These professors care about their students. They struggle to improve their teaching. They work long hours and are usually underpaid. It was truly irresponsible of me to leave them out of the picture. Why had I done so?

I did it because I was treating the academy “monolithically,” a critique I heard second-hand from a professor who did not want to comment on the blog itself. It’s true that I treated the institutional stance toward non-academic life, specifically non-university teaching, as monolithic. It is not. However, to borrow one of the many useful terms I learned in the academy, I would make the case that it is hegemonic. I believe that although many, many individuals in the academy, maybe even the majority of them, do care about teaching, that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the way teaching is perceived in the academy. It just means that the problem is institutional in scale, not individual.

The same source suggested that my views had been unduly influenced by my own personal academic experience, to which I can only say, guilty as charged. However, she then went on to say that I had made “ridiculous assumptions” about how academics see colleagues who leave the academic world.

If this is a ridiculous assumption, I am not making it alone. I got far more responses to this post than anything else I’ve written for this blog–in the comments section, on my Facebook page, and in my personal inbox. I will cite a few of them here to illustrate my point. (None of the private or anonymous comments were used without permission.)

First things first. I started out complaining about the University of Chicago’s attitude toward non-academic jobs for its graduates. Here’s an unsolicited comment from someone I don’t know who graduated from the same department I did:

A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Another anonymous commenter confirms this view, saying that faculty response to her “other” jobs post-graduation” was “utterly shaming,” even when that job was working at an extremely prestigious academic journal.

And another:

I have a friend who decided to become a high school teacher and her advisor promptly dropped her–he has put off reading her completed dissertation and scheduling her defense for almost two years since she’s no longer pursuing “academic employment.” 

This is not a huge sample size, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, these stories are not very surprising. Moreover, I have never heard this type of story told about any high-status job other than academia–as a friend of mine remarked, no lawyer or doctor would ever look down on someone who decided to quit a massively demanding job to do something else that made them happier (with the possible exception, sadly, of raising a child). Maybe we’re all just trying to cover up our own academic failings, which I don’t believe is the case, or maybe the assumption that academics often look down on non-academic jobs isn’t so ridiculous after all. Unless we’re just being paranoid.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

* * * * *

If that’s the perceived value of teaching outside the academy, what about teaching within the academy? I heard stories about that, too:

when i did a campus visit at X earlier this year, one of the committee members told me that he had taught at Yale before moving to X. When he received a teaching award, his colleagues all sent their condolences — because no one who had received a teaching award had ever been tenured.

The most shocking part of stories like these is that if you have been a grad student, they are not really shocking at all.

But! Duh, you are thinking. Yale, you are thinking. All these examples, you could point out, come from Research I universities with English departments consistently ranked in the top 20 nationwide, by whoever ranks those things. What about all of those professors toiling away at liberal arts schools, at inner-city public universities, at community colleges? They’re not suffering from delusions that they are living the always-scare-quoted “life of the mind.” They are too busy grading, or endlessly meeting with kids in office hours to help them revise their papers, or staying up late to put together a terrific lesson plan. They teach, and they care, and many of them get tenure.

To this, I respond—I hate to burst your bubble, but in the rarefied heights of academia, in the top ten English graduate programs in the nation, those jobs are not valued very highly either. I have heard so many anecdotes from colleagues who were visibly and palpably snubbed by professors, often by their own advisors, for having taken jobs like these. I wish I could give the stories in more detail, but they are not my stories and I will not tell them without permission. People have their reasons for not talking about these things in public forums.

Yes, most (though not all) of my anecdotes come from departments renowned for this type of occluded elitism. Nonetheless, there is no denying that they are the top departments in their discipline, that their professors are the top academics in their fields, that a recommendation from one of these professors opens doors. They wrote the books we cite, they headline the conferences we travel to. They are the scholarly tastemakers, the critical vanguard, the leading lights who set the standard for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Students continue to fight to get into these universities because in a nearly non-existent job market, they continue to place students in academic jobs–“good” ones, though again, the definition of a “good” job is determined entirely by the people doing the placing.

As suggested by the former University of Chicago grad student cited above, professors want to maintain that prestige for the department, thereby continuing to attract the brightest students, and they know how to do it: promoting the importance of research, and, by extension, demoting teaching to secondary status. (Tertiary if you account for wearing cool clothes.)

Anyone who doubts this is invited to meditate on the phrase “icing on the cake.” It’s a phrase I heard a dozen times when I was applying for jobs, a phrase used to describe the value of teaching on the academic job market. Every professor in my department, even the ones who themselves value teaching, will use this phrase (or sometimes the less colorful “bonus”), meaning sure, talk about your teaching skills in an interview, it won’t count against you. But it won’t get you hired either, much less tenured. (Conversely, as many of us have seen, the lack of it won’t get you fired.) I assume that these professors, who are at the top of their field, and whose most pressing business is to get their students academic jobs after graduation, know of what they speak.

I have approximately a zillion anecdotes that demonstrate the undervaluation of teaching in my department, but again, I do not want to tell others’ stories without their permission. So instead I will directly quote another commenter, this one from a prestigious public university, who actually changed her focus from literature to rhetoric and composition out of frustration with the sexism of her lit professors. Although she had always loved 18th-century literature, the classes this student took in rhet/comp were more interesting, more humane, and more generally acknowledging of female existence than the lit classes:

The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important. . . . In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. . . If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

Rhet/comp is the study of writing and argumentation. Writing is a demonstrable skill with copious uses in non-academic jobs. Teaching someone to write is difficult, but progress in writing is relatively easy to assess, which is perhaps why the field tends to be more teaching-oriented than literary fields. So it’s no surprise to me that, with the exception of certain theoretically-oriented departments like Berkeley, rhet/comp doesn’t get a lot of respect in English departments. Anyone who’s seen an English professor’s nose wrinkle at the though of teaching freshman comp classes knows that it is considered “service work.”

And as the commenter pointed out, that makes it women’s work, and women’s work is undervalued. Is anyone really surprised that attitudes toward feminized work within the academy reflect attitudes toward feminized work in the outside world?

Well, yeah, I was kind of surprised, since I went into academia to teach. I thought that was what professors did! I entered grad school with the comically naive goal of standing in front of a classroom in an elbow-patched blazer, teaching the books I loved, and getting summers off to write my novel.

By the way, if I had a dime for every academic who got into it thinking they would write their novels in the summer, I would be the saddest millionaire in the world. Creative writing is seen as a quaint and slightly embarrassing hobby in  academia.

* * * * *

Is teaching, especially teaching writing, institutionally undervalued in academia? After all this, I confess it’s hard for me to say, given my own experiences, which some would call extreme. They may be, although, as I argued before, I believe those attitudes coming from on high affect the way teaching is valued (or not valued) at all levels. Still, they create a certain myopia, as another commenter from my department described:

. . . on the other hand, at one of my mla interviews, one of the questions they asked was, “why do you want to be a teacher?” — it’s hard to be very sure when most of the grad students you actually know were raised on the same wire mother.

If you are unfamiliar with the wire mother, it’s shorthand for a classic experiment in screwing monkeys over for life conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Basically, you isolate the baby rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and give them surrogate “mothers” made of wire and cloth instead, and watch what happens over time.

I don’t know whether any of those monkeys went on to finish their doctorates, but they exhibited intense, crippling anxiety and misdirected aggression throughout their lives. I had to laugh, juvenile as it was, upon learning that in these monkeys “[s]ex behavior was, for all practical purposes, destroyed,” as  “isolate females ignored approaching normal males, while isolate males made inaccurate attempts to copulate with normal females.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a boyfriend for six years!

Other bizarre behaviors exhibited by these children of cold, pointy, comfortless mothers included “clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth.”

Oh, rhesus monkey. I’ve been there.

* * * *  *

I feel deeply, deeply complicated about the wire mother that is University of Chicago. I don’t want this post to become an autobiographical list of all the cold, pointy, comfortless things I witnessed there, but it’s hard to stop once you start. It’s hard to communicate to people just how traumatizing those things were, so you just keep going, which is why, after all, I am still writing this at 4:30 in the morning when I have to get up at 7:00.

It’s been eight years since Thomas H. Benton asked (pseudonymously) “Is Graduate School a Cult?”; longer still since Margaret Newhouse wrote “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult“; and over ten years since Lisa Ruddick observed the dehumanizing influence of the academic hierarchy in her post-9/11 article “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” But if my recent experience and those of my peers is typical, not a whole lot has changed since then.

For a more recent example, see this humorous but dead-on comparison of grad school to a cult by a grad student who, by the way, was once literally in a cult:

1. On the first day you arrive, you’re reminded that you’re part of a small, elite subgroup with access to specialized knowledge that the average person can never hope to achieve. You’re congratulated for choosing to come to graduate school and leaving behind the shallow materialism of the world.

2. Despite what a great achievement it is to get into graduate school (or so they tell you), you start to notice that your only reward seems to be working harder than all your college friends.

The pride in suffering that keeps you in a place like this even when you have to be doped up on Klonopin to bear it, this cult-like tribalism that says you are being torn down for your own good, that you will emerge the better for your wounds, is everywhere on display at the University of Chicago. It is a mentality perfectly articulated, literally inscribed on the body, by the t-shirts worn proudly by undergraduates all over campus, bearing the legend: “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.”

* * * * *

The question of how this all pertains to sexism and the undervaluing of “women’s work” is something I can’t quite handle yet. It is at once a personal issue, a political issue, and a the-personal-is-political issue, all tangled up in a big, messy knot with my particular experiences of humiliation at the University of Chicago. I entered the university by way of an MA program whose students, despite being basically cash cows for the university, get treated very, very poorly within the English department. I fought hard for legitimacy and respect, and eventually I must have won it, because I was admitted into the PhD program the very next year. Having lived in two worlds, I am intimately, painfully familiar with the difference between being valued and being ignored, sometimes even openly despised, within the same intellectual community.

Did I get a huge rush every time a professor gave me the head-nod of approval in class, or liked my work, or treated me as an important person with good ideas? Absolutely. Did I feel giddy every time I won some department-wide competition for a scant resource, whether it was money, an award, or teaching (which, although the professors don’t care about it, acquires value among grad students precisely because it’s a scant resource at U of C)? Yes, yes, yes.

The first time I got the magic head-nod, I nearly hit the fucking ceiling. I trembled for hours. That’s approval addiction. Approval is not the same as support, not by a long shot. But in an environment where actual, steady, dependable support is hard to come by, you’ll take it. Any port in a storm, any mother in a monkey cage. I leapt for the gold ring again and again, transfixed by the moment of exhilarating warmth I felt, the knowledge that I was doing well.

Like all addictions, approval has diminishing returns. But that doesn’t make it any easier to give up. I wish I didn’t still want it. The job placement page is just a bookmark in the vast tome of not-giving-a-shit that I, paranoid, feel emanating from the university where I spent six years learning how to feel inadequate, even as I piled up successes within the department.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to forget you ever existed.

If this sounds crazy, you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I never felt this way before I attended the University of Chicago–not as a child with my parents, not in grade school or high school, certainly not in college. If it helps, I have plenty of witnesses from my pre-grad-school life who can attest to this. I’m married to one of them.

To make a long story short (too late!): No, I don’t believe non-academic careers are much valued in academia, and no, I don’t believe teaching, either in a university or elsewhere, is much valued in academia, and yes, I think this attitude disproportionately affects women, and no, the quantities of good, hardworking teachers in the academy do not really change the question of how much they are valued. The fact that I had it relatively easy in academia, the fact that I was a valued and respected member of my department who also avowedly loved teaching, does not change the question either. If anything, it’s even more damning to me. Even while I earned approval from the department again and again, I couldn’t help but absorb those attitudes, and eventually they became toxic to me. And that is why I left.

Emma Straub Majored in Tater Tots, and Other Fun Facts about the Author

A couple of days ago I got to talk to Emma Straub, whose debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures I picked up in Shakespeare & Co. and read on the plane ride back from Paris (yeah, that’s right, I got the UK cover, uh-huh). Straub is coming to the Texas Book Festival this afternoon, so I asked my editor if I could interview her. She was super nice, and had some awesome things to say about her own experiences of becoming a (paid) writer. Here is the looooong version of the interview–you can find the original article here. Enjoy!


The Oeditrix: How did you get the idea for Laura Lamont?

Emma Straub: I was working on something else at the time, another novel idea that wasn’t really going anywhere, and I came across the obituary for the actress Jennifer Jones. I was so moved by her life story as presented in this four or five paragraph obituary. And I just thought, that is a novel! There was so much drama, and so much happens. . . . Laura Lamont’s life has certain things in common with Jennifer Jones’s, but I really wanted her to be her own person, and not some fictionalized version of Jennifer Jones. So I stayed far way from her after that.

Continue reading

Tagged , , ,

“Just” Teaching

MITT ROMNEY: I love teachers.  

BOB SCHIEFFER: I think we all love teachers.

I just accepted a job teaching writing at a small private high school with a liberal slant and a hippie-fied aesthetic. I have applied to many teaching jobs, but I fought hard for this one, because it sounded better than any job I’ve applied to so far—perfect for me, in fact. I have been walking on air since I got the offer.

And then this morning I woke up with a sudden panic in my chest.

The woman who founded and runs the school has a PhD in rhetoric and composition and helped shape the writing center at a major university. She left academia 40 years ago, disgusted by male peers who, she hinted, ran the department like a cross between a Chuck E. Cheese and a gentleman’s club. She believes in her school, she believes in her kids, and she believes in her lifestyle, which as far as I can tell involves a lot of time spent working and reading in a cozy armchair next to her spouse in the shabby but beautiful house they have filled with books and precious artifacts.

Despite this, there was one moment of our meeting when her face clouded over and she said, “I’ve never done anything my whole life, except just teach.”

“Just” teach.

* * * * *

From what I can tell, the University of Chicago, where I got my PhD in English, considers me deceased. If you don’t believe me, look at their “job placement” page, which lists every academic job their graduates get, no matter how transient or low-status, but makes no mention of the writers, teachers, consultants, journalists, programmers, lawyers, etc., who come out of their program every year.

As far as the University of Chicago is concerned, not only was my graduation in December 2011 my most recent accomplishment, but it will always be my most recent accomplishment, unless I get a university job down the line. Many academics consider the world outside of academia devoid of all intellectual stimulation and rigor, and the decision to leave seemingly strikes them as tantamount to abandoning the “life of the mind” for an endless parade of Katy Perry tunes, American cheese, reality TV, and trips to Six Flags.

This is obviously silly, and good, smart academics certainly don’t think that way. But this assumption about leaving academia masks certain others that are decidedly less silly. Assumptions that most people never articulate when you’re thinking of leaving, because they’re too painful, too gendered, and maybe sometimes a little too true.

For a man, opting out of academia sort of implies choosing corporate lucre over the intellectual life, which is a bit déclassé. But for a woman, it is far more likely to mean choosing a low-status job in the public sector over a high-status (if still underpaid) university job.

If you lined up in a row all the women I know who left grad school, they would look something like a female version of The Village People. Public school teacher, public interest lawyer, nurse—all models of civic responsibility, public servants who keep our society running on public-sector paychecks, and with no expectations of the deference granted their high-status peers. These are the people who are lauded on bumper stickers instead of listened to in election years. And they are disproportionately female.*

They are also the smartest women I have ever met. They are writers, thinkers, activists, poets, performers, and artists. Their conversation has made me smarter and their accomplishments have inspired me to do more. Selfishly, I hope they will eventually become mothers, so I can meet their brilliant kids.

Kids who will grow up to be . . . . well it depends. Are they boys or girls? Do they want to have a family? How much? Will someone else be able to help take care of the family? Support it financially? Will they be willing to tough it out in a career where they’re either an outnumbered minority or an undervalued majority?

How important will status be to them, and what will they sacrifice to chase it across the finish line?

* * * * *

I think I will love this job teaching high schoolers to write. I love it already, and I haven’t started yet. Sitting with the director of the school, going over the class material, imagining myself imparting the fundamentals of self-expression, which I picture getting these kids into good colleges and then good jobs after that, I think, this is so much more fucking important than anything I ever did in grad school.

“You have to learn how to express yourself,” I imagine myself telling these kids. “When you know how to communicate your ideas in writing, people take you seriously. You can tell the world your thoughts, your experiences, and the world will listen. You can argue your points. And then you can achieve . . . ”

I picture myself really thinking about this one. I guess it depends?

“Anything,” I would have to finish, even though I don’t really know what that means anymore.

Once when I lived in Chicago an exterminator came by the apartment. We made small talk as he wandered around, poking the long nozzle of the pesticide sprayer into closets and checking for ants under the sink. His head and shoulders deep in the kitchen cabinets, he asked me what I did for a living. I said “student.” He asked about my post-graduation plans, and I said, “I hope to become a professor and teach English at a university.”

He emerged from under the sink right away. He said, “I got a lot of respect for schoolteachers. They got the most important job in the world. My mother was a schoolteacher, my grandmother too. You gotta be really smart to be a schoolteacher. They got the hardest job in the world.”

His head disappeared back under the sink, but he went on talking about it for some time. I felt a little squirmy. I wasn’t the one he was talking to. I wasn’t a noble public servant. I was in school because I loved ideas. I was in school for the life of the mind. I was in school—let’s face it, I was in it because everyone told me I was smart enough to win the whole game, to wear the tweed suit, to be a professor. I felt a million miles away from being the person this man thought he was talking to. It made me feel a little guilty, like I was getting away with something.

Before he left the apartment, he shook my hand. “Good luck with the teacher thing,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I really admire you.”

I’m still not the person he means. I’m not taking on the overwhelming odds against public school teachers. I’m not working with the disadvantaged kids who need it most. The kids I will teach are just shy, or weird, or they’ve been bullied or ignored in bigger schools, and their parents can afford to send them to a small hippie school with tiny classes. If being a teacher is the hardest job in the world, I hardly qualify as a teacher at all. But I no longer feel a million miles away from the person the exterminator thought he was talking to. If I work hard, someday I will be “just” a teacher, too.

In making decisions about our lives, we measure out what we can handle in tiny little increments, slivers of difference. We weigh our talents and our passions, our dreams and our guilt, what we need and what we can give, what the world says and what it means. And if, at the end of the day, we feel womaned by these decisions, we put it into next week’s lesson plan.


*They were also disproportionately women of color. Women of color left my program in tiny, silent droves while I was there.

Tagged , , ,

Hey, Here Are Some Links!

Because it must be Friday somewhere:

-Terrific interview with Heidi Julavits on the Rumpus. [Ben Marcus told her there were too many descriptions of clothes in The Vanishers. Spoiler alert: THERE WEREN’T.]

-Alyssa Rosenberg claims that nerd misogyny was forecast by Buffy S6. As a staunch defender of S6, I feel it my duty to say “I told you so.”

-Sarah Sentilles on sexist reviews of women’s writing–especially about religion.

Intellectual Negging at Shakespeare & Co., a Womansplanation

Yesterday we ate lamb testicles in Paris. It was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had, and it was worth it. “Remember those lamb testicles we ate?” is a phrase I fully intend to integrate into my vocabulary, and I hope Curtis will always answer, as he did last night, “Those lamb testicles were so amazing.”

After our lamb testicle lunch, we wandered around the corner to Shakespeare & Co., the English-language bookstore and lending library Sylvia Beach ran for American ex-pats in the 1920s. I was there ten years ago, but must not have gone past the first room, because I did not remember it being so amazing.

The cramped rooms twist around one another like a baroque series of stomachs in a fantastical beast. Nooks and alcoves, curtained or cushioned and decorated with newspaper clippings and old photographs, appear around every corner. Improbably-shaped bookshelves line the narrow staircase and arch over the doorways, almost as if they’re supporting the sagging walls instead of weighing them down. Under a display table, a sunken wishing bowl holds pennies, euros and pounds.

This is not even to speak of the selection. English-language books not just numerous but also different than I’m used to seeing, by authors barely read in America—oddballs without genre like Michael Moorcock, humorists taken seriously like Jerome K. Jerome. Dalkey Archive Press paperbacks, vintage Rebecca West hardbacks, and a volume of Grimm’s fairy tales illustrated by Mervyn Peake and introduced by Sarah Waters. Not to mention a theory section stocked with all the Derrida, all the Barthes, all the Deleuze and Badiou and Ranciere. It was like Domy, Powell’s, Half-Price Books and the Seminary Co-op rolled into one, then crammed into a space the size of our apartment.

Because the bookstore is so small and so full of people, you can hear every conversation. Most shoppers murmur softly in French or English, gently jostling one another for a better glimpse of the display table or reaching for the shelves nearest the ceiling with a quiet “pardon.”

As I peruse the Doris Lessing shelf, a man’s voice rises above the others. One of those voices that, while not particularly loud, never lowers itself even when personal space is at a premium or silence is requested (subways and library stacks, respectively). And because he is speaking English in perfectly audible tones, I feel not only obligated to listen, but entitled to that delicious thrill of judgment which is the compensation for overhearing conversations you’d rather not.

The young man, of slightly less than average height, wears a backpack. Over the course of my visit he converses with two female compatriots, not at the same time. Having glimpsed a sign on the register directed at NYU exchange students, I automatically assume these three are from NYU, though it doesn’t really matter if they are or not. The young women speak with excitement and curiosity. The young man consistently mistakes their attempts to engage him in conversation as serious appeals to his superior knowledge, and proceeds accordingly.

HER: I can’t decide which of these to buy! They’re both amazing. What do you think, which one?

HIM: Um, neither is really my thing?

HER: I meant for me, not for you.

HIM: Well, I don’t know, because I would never read either one.

He comes up with ingenious ways of expressing his lack of knowledge and interest in such a way as to make it seem like a fascinating aspect of his personality about which every girl is dying to hear more.

HER, holding up a children’s book: I loved this when I was little. The illustrations are so beautiful.

HIM: [Silence.]

HER, holding up a novel: How about this, do you know if it’s good?

HIM: Yeah, I read it, but it’s been soooo long ago, I don’t really remember anything about it. Like early in high school? A long time ago.

I have to congratulate this dude on getting a jump start on a time-honored convention of academic discourse. “You’ve read X, right?” “Yes, but it’s been a long time.” In academia, everyone knows this is code for “I haven’t read it. Please do not reveal that you know this. Instead, give me a detailed summary so that we can converse comfortably about it, and so that in the future I can pretend I’ve read it more convincingly.” It should be noted, however, that, ridiculous as this encrypted dialogue is, it sounds a lot more dignified coming from a professor in his fifties than from a 20-year-old. A 20-year-old has barely had time to forget anything.

HIM: If you think getting a motorcycle is going to save you money, you’re wrong. It’s incredibly expensive to run and seriously inconvenient. I mean, Iguess if you’re getting it to look cool, fine, but if you’re getting it because you think it’s going to be cheaper or something, it won’t be.

HER: Well anyway, I’m pretty excited about it. It’ll be ready for me to pick up tomorrow.

These two women, both petite (I cannot help thinking this was one reason he enjoyed talking to them so much) were being mansplained within an inch of their lives. Hostages in a tight space, they gave this guy the benefit of the doubt, possibly for no other reason than a desire to share their enthusiasm with someone, and resignation at being stuck in Paris with this blowhard for the entire semester.

How many smart women, do you suppose, are at this very moment listening to men in bookstores and music stores and movie stores throw cold water on everything they’re saying, treat them like idiots, just because they can get away with it, and because they’re too busy intellectually negging these women like some kind of nerd/Mystery hybrid to realize they’re just being plain rude—not to mention inaccurate, ill-informed, or at the very least, over-confident in opinions that could use a little fresh air and opposition?

The sheer lack of intellectual curiosity of the mansplainer is only rivaled by his paranoia that if he doesn’t give an opinion dump right away, the girl might not think he is the smart one in the conversation. How many women are nodding along because (a) they’ve been taught that manners are important, (b) it’s just too tiring to try to penetrate this nonsense, and, worst of all, (c) on some deep level, based on implicit and explicit messages they’ve received over the course of their lives, they believe the mansplainer must be right–or at least right enough to not be worth arguing with?

I want to grab that guy by the backpack straps and say, One of these days, these girls are going to get wise and run out of patience with you. So you better practice listening to them, otherwise good luck getting laid in your thirties.

But the truth is, some girls will become women without ever running out of patience for this guy. Telling the mansplainer he was raised in a barn will not solve the problem unless you also take the women aside and say, Hey listen, you get that this guy is just being a douche, right? You get that he’s afraid of your brain and is pretending you don’t have one, right? You get that he sees you as a source of continual reassurance to shore up his self-worth, right? And you get that you do not have to take this bullshit, that you can express yourself back, forcefully, or, if you don’t feel like it, just walk away with a pained look on your face and find someone better to talk to?

Maybe the young women in the bookstore already know this. Maybe he started talking to the second one because the first one walked away in irritation. Maybe both girls are in the process of figuring it out right now, and this guy is part of the lesson plan.

By the time I got to college I was already becoming aware of it, but I could have used the knowledge a lot earlier. Every time I think back to Libba Bray’s keynote address at the Austin Teen Book Festival, I think, Where was this when I was young and literate and pissed off and didn’t know why? Where was this when I stopped wearing makeup and shopping at the Gap and started coming to school with unbrushed hair, in knee-length cut-offs and baggy tee shirts? I didn’t know I was a feminist then. I didn’t have a name for my anger, or anyone to tell about it.

When I get back to Austin, I start teaching writing classes at a tiny private high school run by a woman who left academia decades ago. I will have only six students in each class—not a lot of teenagers, but a lot of time with each one. These are students who have had trouble fitting in socially at the big wealthy public schools in the west hills of Austin, nerds and weirdos and the occasional miscreant. I’m not really clear on whether these kids are considered “troubled” or not. I guess I’ll find out soon.

But if they are, I can relate. I’m troubled too, by lots of things. I want to help high school girls put a name to their anger so they can start talking back. Everyone will benefit from this, including the budding mansplainer in the front row.

Tagged , , , , ,