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.”

Beside/s: Wake up White Feminism!

  1. Nancy Fraser’s interview in NYTimes: A Feminism Where ‘Lean In’ Means Leaning on Others
  2. Brenna Bhandar’s and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome

A summary of Bhandar’s/da Silva’s argument found in the comments (yes, comments can be helpful!):

1 — The White feminist position she [Fraser] writes from (and calls feminist) could not have been tricked by neoliberalism because it is no different ontologically. That their programmes and projects were appropriated is due to the fact that they were ‘appropriate’ to a liberal programme.
2 — The call to them was not ‘check your privilege’ but wake up and smell your fundamentally liberal ‘coffee’!
3 — We also say that the feminist predicament she describes — which is of a certain feminism — it is only that of a certain feminism which has refused to rethink itself even after over 100 years of statements, analyses, etc that show how limited its understanding of the construction of patriarchy it is.
4 — What we say then is not that Black/​Third World feminisms are better but that they have advanced (continually ignored) critiques of capitalism which, because of how (and that we didn’t say explicitly but is implied) racial and colonial subjugation, demarcate a political (as well as ontoepistemological) position that signals the limits of any emancipatory (racial, gender-​sexual, etc) project that is not a radical critique of liberalism.

So it is Important to Think

Every so often I revisit the work of Michel Foucault. His theories on power, truth, ethics, problematization and care are central to my own vision of practicing an ethics of care on and offline. Today, I came across Foucault’s “So it is Important to Think.” Here are two passages that I want to ruminate on and remember:

Stupid Institutions think too.

There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy (456).

a fragment of autobiography:

Every time I have tried to do a piece of theoretical work it has been on the basis of elements of my own experience: always in connection with processes I saw unfolding around me. It was always because I thought I identified cracks, silent tremors, and dysfunctions in things I saw, institutions I was dealing with, or my relations with others, that I set out to do a piece of work, and each time was partly a fragment of autobiography (458).