More on Gratitude

Tonight I decided to scroll through my tumblr site, Staying in Trouble. I haven’t posted on it for years. Maybe I’ll start again? Anyway, I found an image that I reblogged 3 years ago and was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s article that I posted about a few days ago. She writes:

Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.


What Do You Mean?

In a powerful post about microagressions and casual racism at the dinner table, Nicole Chung discusses her troubling and conflicted feelings about how to respond when a guest asks her a racist question while at a dinner party with mostly friends and family. After reflecting on what to do, she poses the question:

Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?

Ultimately she decides to do nothing but shrug off the question. Her response haunts her:

When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?

The comments to this post were almost all positive and supportive. Many included discussions of how they struggled with similar experiences or strategies for handling future racist questions and comments. I was particularly struck by Loren_Ipsum’s technique of persistently asking, “What Do you Mean?”:

I wanted to share one satisfying method I’ve found to dealing with them: say, politely, “What do you mean?” and repeat it as necessary. Because, eventually, the person will have to articulate aloud those asshole beliefs — all Asian people look the same, all women are inherently dumber, etc. — that they’d only implied before. And once they do that, it’s much easier for you (and others) to respond with “what on earth is wrong with you?” without seeming like the bad guy. Or the person will give up in frustration, and that’s a win too?

What do you mean? I like this question. I think I’ll add it to my list of questions that one should ask on a regular basis, along with Why? and At whose expense?

Early Morning Encounters

For the past year or so, I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up at 6:15 AM, before anyone else in my house is awake. I make my extra strong coffee and sit on the couch, scrolling through my facebook and twitter feeds. Usually I’m looking for something that sparks my curiosity and inspires me to get into a critically reflective (troubling/troubled) space. Somedays I don’t find anything. But usually, there’s at least one item to read, watch or listen to. Today, on my first day back from winter break, I found two things. I’ve decided to archive them here.

The Selfish Side of Gratitude

Barbara Ehrenreich. New York TimesSunday Review. Ehrenreich is great. Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed her critiques of positive thinking. It’s difficult to pick out just a few passages from her brief essay to post here (it’s all good), but I was especially drawn to these two:

Gratitude to those who made your meal possible:

Yet there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

Not Gratitude but Solidarity:

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.

Ehrenreich’s mention of debt reminds me of Eula Bliss and her discussion of White Debt in the NY Times last month.

The Unravelers

Stephanie Danler. Paris Review.

There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel. I am a great unraveler. I can undo years of careful stitching in fifteen gluttonous minutes. It isn’t even a decision, really. Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?

I don’t unravel in the same way as the author, but I like thinking about my practices of undisciplining and unlearning as forms of unraveling bad habits and toxic/unhealthy narratives about myself and the world.


Beside/s: What’s the point of a professor?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a professor is and does and what their relationship to their students should and/or could be. This exploration is highly personal.  I’m in the midst of a lengthy book/story project in which I critically reflect on my past life as a Professor and struggle with how and if I want to ever teach or be an educator again. Is there space for my type of teaching, where I am not the Authority/Expert who bestows knowledge on my passive students, but does something else? What is that “something else’? Does it count as teaching?

In the midst of my ruminations, I encountered two online essays that prompted/provoked me to push at the limits of my tolerance for the idea of Professor as Expert and Supreme Authority and reminded me, once again, how embedded arrogance and hubris are in academic culture. In anger and frustration I wondered, Is it possible to be a (flourishing) professor without being an Asshole?

Mark Bauerlein’s What’s the Point of a Professor?
Keith M. Parsons’ Message to My Freshman Students

These two essays bothered me a lot. I was angered by their wistful and exasperated nostalgia for a time when Professors were gods, revered for their wisdom and adored by their students. And saddened by their contempt for their students as spoiled and lacking in proper values. I was so bothered that I spent the rest of last week thinking and trying to write about them.

I became stuck, jotting down page after page of notes (14 pages so far!) with ideas of how to respond, but never being able to convert those notes into a cogent argument. Did I want to crank about Bauerlein’s and Parsons’ arrogance? Challenge their elitist vision of who/what a professor is? Reflect on how their toxic hubris was too familiar to me, having witnessed it repeatedly at the “fancy” research University where I taught for almost six years?

Yesterday morning I came to a realization: I’m tired of spending time with these arrogant assholes. I want to move on to better ideas and more compelling reflections on the state of the University and the role of professors. I want to read other perspectives besides this dominant narrative of the Professor as god and their students as spoiled and lazy brats. So I read Tav Nyong’o’s post on Bully Bloggers, Zareena Grewal’s op-ed for The Washington Post and Sara Ahmed’s article for The New Inquiry. 

All of these articles are written by professors who don’t envision their students as lazy, entitled and ignorant. They see them as courageous and smart resistors who are fighting back against institutions that do violence to them and that hypocritically preach values that they consistently fail to practice.

Tav Nyong’o’s The Student Demand
Zareena Grewal’s Here’s What My Yale Students Get
Sara Ahmed’s Against Students

I was inspired by these articles to move beyond my anger and frustration with the arrogant asshole narrative to think deeply about the role/duties of the professor, the relationship they have with their students and the values that they collectively (students and professors…and even the administration) develop and practice within academic spaces. I’m still unsure about how or if I fit in as a teacher or whether the Academy is worth fighting for, but I feel like I’m on a worthwhile path of reflection, one that will be more valuable than my initial cranking about Bauerlein and Parsons.

As I keep thinking about these issues, I have much more to write. For now, I conclude this post by placing a passage from Ahmed beside/s (as in, next to and in addition to) Bauerlein’s claims as one possible answer to the question in his title: What’s the point of a professor?

In the final lines of her critical essay about why students resist and the academic culture that is against them, Sara Ahmed writes:

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job (Ahmed).

Supporting, standing with and standing by students. That’s the point of a professor.

Mourning Becomes the Law

From J Butler’s Mourning Becomes the Law:

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through.  It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement.”