Saturday, November 22, 2008

Election season rant

There are some issues that align me with liberal thought; my stance on other issues apparently put me in a Republican camp. I'm rarely black and white, except on issues that are against abortion and gay marriage (I'm against those). Obama's a'ight, and I'm looking forward to the changes that his presidency will bring. On the other hand, I don't think that Sarah Palin should be mocked to the extent that she has been. It's kind of like a blond joke, or a Polish joke. They're not really appropriate, ever, and they're definitely old. Really old. *There, I said it.*

Although I keep myself informed, I don't enjoy discussing politics, and I'm quite relieved that the election is over. TAs can stop ranting in the cubicles we all share; students can stop repeating things--with hands on their hips, essentially--they've overheard their parents or their roommates say; and professors can stop hinting towards, or blatantly announcing, their political agendas in class.

I was keeping pretty quiet over here in my little corner, feeling like I didn't have a dog in this fight, until I read this post from BitchPhd (click here). Granted, its obnoxious to have students wave around vague statistics about some political point--I know of one in particular from a previous semester who managed to somehow write into every paper something to the effect of 'America is the greatest place on earth and everyone should stop picking on us'. It was difficult, I admit, to stick to grading grammar and communicative skills in those moments. However, what I've run into much more often in my academic career, is the professor tying their political agendas into their lectures (some more subtly than others).

But there's only a few available reactions to a professor moseying off-course to make a random comment about political affairs:
  • You agree with them. You smile, nod, maybe laugh, and continue listening. Nothing is written down in your notes, except perhaps "cf. Obama's campaign" which, later, means little to you in the larger spectrum of understanding European history, or what have you.
  • You don't get it. You smile, nod, maybe laugh, and continue listening. Nothing is written down in your notes, except perhaps "comment made about George Bush...look up later"
  • You disagree. You grimace, you check your watch. Maybe you smile politely, or just look out the window. You feel like an outsider because everyone else is smiling and nodding, whether they get it or not. Nothing is written down in your notes.
  • None of the above. Rather than being concerned about whether you agree or disagree, you just don't find it germane to the discussion and would like to continue with the class that you've spent time preparing for.

Sometimes, depending on the severity or outlandishness of the comment, a disagreeing student is left unable to concentrate. A professor once joked about running for governor in ________. He/she said that their #1 platform would be to ensure that all Vietnam Veterans are tried as war criminals.

Blood. Boiling.

It was everything I could do to not get up and walk out of class. But I relied on this professor for a letter of recommendation. Biting my lip, I focused on writing the alphabet down--that is, until I broke the tip of my pencil. I consoled myself with the irony of the fact that the very reason I was able to afford being in this class to hear this bullshit was because of my father's "Bloodmoney" from chapter 35 of the G.I. bill. It was filtering into the university system and into this professor's paycheck. Don't worry, lunch is on my dad. Eventually, the professor concluded the rant and returned to the subject matter at hand (which, by the way, was in no way related to the remark about veterans). By that time, however, I was unable to concentrate on the discussion. My notes from that day are sparse and incoherent. *

This example is one of the worst possible outcome of talking politics in the classroom; albeit an extreme case. Why even go down that road? I don't make my political bents known to my students. It's not that I care whether they like me or dislike me because of it, it's that it does not apply to the subject matter of my classroom. Nothing a professor has ever said in a classroom, politically, whether I agreed or not, has informed my own opinions. It is a wasted minute of my education, as I see it, and I want it back.

*Later that week I swallowed my nerves and my potential letter of recommendation (because you see, professors, while students are not afraid of disagreeing with you on the outcome of a poem, they certainly don't want you to know that they disagree with your politics). I went to this professor's office to discuss the comment. I certainly did not imagine trying to sway opinions, or create a debate. I simply explained that comments of this nature prohibited me from concentrating on the lecture. Apparently, this was the right angle to play. To my knowledge, no Vietnam veteran comments have been made in this prof's classroom since this discussion about three years ago.


Dr. Virago said...

Hey, I hope you weren't prevented from concentrating on my class after my Palin-Margery Kempe comparison. Because I actually had a serious, if half-baked point, and it was largely politically neutral in the sense that it wasn't pro-Palin or anti-Palin (and I wasn't making fun of her). As I mentioned, I hadn't really thought it out, and I was going to invite the class to discuss -- the same way I draw analogies to other aspects of contemporary culture -- but then everyone was laughing, I wasn't being very articulate, and S distracted me with the speculation that Palin might like Kempe (I was seriously thinking about that!) and I decided to *move* *on*. But the basic point was this: Kempe and Palin are both cannily performing a kind of "authenticity" that rests on seeming less in command, less educated than either might be. (Or maybe it matches their "real" selves -- that ultimately doesn't matter to the peformance though.) And both performances are intimately connected to gender, power, and religious faith.

All of which I bring up here to show that there are reasons to bring up politics in the classroom. In this particular case it was to a) understand the material, and b) connect the material to the present. I suppose I could have used LBJ, a Democrat, as an example -- he also said "new-cu-ler" even though he knew better and his persona was meant to appeal to a certain kind of southern Democrat -- but I doubt very much most of the students would've known him in the same way, or been as invested. Plus, obviously, the gendered performance is different.

So my bringing contemporary politics into the classroom was illustrative. In some classrooms -- say political science -- it is the very subject of the classroom. And that goes for political literature, as well. Kempe's text is deeply invested in politics of religion and gender, and those politics are not safely locked away in the past; we still live with them and imho, we can't cordon our "real life" politics away from the subjects we study, no matter how far away in time and place they seem.

I have to say I'm a little surprised by this post, because you're the last person I think of when I think of people who shy away from productive, if difficult, discussion and thinking.

(PS - Yeah, there was that other moment back in the SGGK discussion when I said Bertilak and company were "field-dressing a moose," instead of deer, but that had more to do with the inherent funniness of the phrase "field-dressing a moose." "Moose" is a funny word.)

Dr. Virago said...


He/she said that their #1 platform would be to ensure that all Vietnam Veterans are tried as war criminals.

Well, that's just *stupid*. I think you should be more annoyed that a prof could be so lacking in subtle and complex thought on *any* subject, political or not.

Dedalus said...

...and who would say such an intentionally outrageous thing? At RBU, of all places?

Oh, wait. I have a list of candidates. It's short. :)

I see what you're saying, and I agree with some of it. Especially if, as it seems, you're not objecting to "productive discussion" so much as to what tends to pass for it once people bring up politics. But OTOH, I ain't exactly shy about that stuff, either. :) (I guess maybe I'm your Exhibit A--he seemed so mild-mannered until they brought up Sarah Palin...) I'm cynical about the usefulness of "polite" debate precisely because I think the underlying issues are so important. I know I'll never change the mind of anyone who actually has convictions--but damn it, I'll publicly humiliate them in order to sway a few other people without convictions. That's what Our Sarah was good for. If you could goad somebody into sticking up for her, it made their whole side look absurd.

And OMG, m'aam, you freaked me out for a second:

except on issues that are against abortion and gay marriage (I'm against those).

That's a tricky construction, with that double negative! It's possible to read it exactly backwards, and I did, at first. Then I saw that you weren't against those things, but against the people who were against them! But I guess it was an interesting test. I thought but that doesn't make any sense! It felt weird. Then I thought but damn it, I respect her convictions. That's the end of it. I guess I'm more tolerant than I thought. I can't decide if that's disappointing or not. :)

Natalie said...

This is completely off topic, but your blog is actually difficult to read because of the background color. Is there any way to make more of a contrast between font/background?

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments. I realized that this blog might attract some attention, and I hope I can clear things up.

First, Dr. V-

"Because I actually had a serious, if half-baked point, and it was largely politically neutral in the sense that it wasn't pro-Palin or anti-Palin (and I wasn't making fun of her)."

Upon posting this I realized that it would likely seem I was making insinuations about our previous class, and I should have cleared it up right off the bat, sorry. If I ever took real issue with something that happened in class, I would come talk to you about it, not just save it for my blog:) Besides--just as you said--it was politically neutral commentary, and you were clearly illustrating a point.

I certainly realize that politics have a very useful and appropriate place in the college classroom. I appreciate it when legitimate and pertinent connections can be made, such as the persona-creations of Palin and Kempe (I always find it helpful and interesting when medieval/21st century connections are made, because there's so many of them we (the students) don't always consider). What my schpeal was dealing with more directly are those moments in which there's just political chatter without context, such as the event I described, which you affirmed for me was *stupid* (thank you for that, by the way:) Obviously, that was an extreme situation, but there have been others throughout my grad and undergrad years (I'm afraid to give out more examples for issues of translucency) that did little more than confuse me, or throw my concentration off, or invite other students to make comments which led the discussion further off course.

Dedalus, dude I don't know WHAT is up with that sentence. Did I forget to mention that I'm a completely right-wing bigot?:) If one of my students turned that in, there would be some margin notes that read something like "Huh? So are you for it or against it?" and of course the ever-ambiguous "awkward" (my favorite comment to give, ever). My apologies for awkward sentence. Let me clear it up: I am pro-choice and completely in favor of same-sex marriage.

I agree with what you've said here, "I'm cynical about the usefulness of "polite" debate precisely because I think the underlying issues are so important." The very fact that they are important emphasizes the need to have these discussions in appropriate forums--some class discussions are, indeed, perfectly suited for such lively debate. It's those other moments, when the highly important issues become flippant asides during a discussion, that they contribute little.

Natalie--welcome! You don't like my red? :( I'll see what I can do. I've never really fooled with it much, so maybe its time for a change.

Dr. Virago said...

Whew, I'm glad Dedalus cleared up that against-against sentence, because I read it the wrong way, too, and I was going to ask you someday to explain what I thought was your anti-gay marriage stance, because I thought, "Well, here's the first thoughtful, sensitive person I've met with that stance -- maybe she can explain where she's coming from, because I do not get that at all (while I can at least intellectually comprehend, if not agree with, the pro-life camp)." Now I don't have to.

Actually, as an aside, I know radical gay people who are against gay marriage, because they don't think gay relationships should imitate hegemonic heterosexual ones. But that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.