Teachers

Fair warning: this post is like, hella sentimental. >.>

I’ve been thinking about a teacher of mine, Cora (not her real name). She is an English professor by trade. These days she is tenure-track at a big university. She teaches courses about things like visual culture, urbanism, and media representations of Blackness. Don’t swoon just yet, stay with me.

Cora was my TA for only one semester, freshman year of college. She was one of three TAs for a massive lecture course, filled mostly by freshman and sophomores who barely understood the title of the course, let alone any of its content. I was lucky enough to be in her Discussion section– we met once a week, and let’s face it, I skipped a lot. Actually, I skipped her class the least of all my classes that first year. She was challenging, clearly brilliant at the level of intimidating, but at the same time she listened to us, gave the impression of respecting rather than tolerating us. I rarely had the impression, freshman year or any year thereafter, that my teachers listened to us students, much less respected us. In general, college was about being told How Things Are; we were not there to contribute– unless the contribution was agreement, or a question eliciting more How Things Are statements.

Unlike the vast majority of other teachers I had in undergrad, Cora gave me feedback. She didn’t put up with my bullshit, and she knew when I was bullshitting because she actually read our shit. Although I was embarrassed, I was also amused when she wrote something to the effect of “You didn’t fucking read this” on a Faulkner paper that I failed. Well, I thought with surprise, They do read this shit. Kudos to any prof who does, because it really, really is shit. But without feedback, students’ work never get better. Cora went one step past feedback, though. She critiqued our minds, our worldviews, not just our papers. She critiqued them through lenses that, to my small [town] mind, had previously never existed. Realizing how out of my depth I was, I didn’t do the thing I usually do when I feel intimidated or overwhelmed (give up)– rather, I redoubled my efforts. I wanted to impress Cora, and I wanted her to like me, and I wanted to be like her.

Once, on one of my critical papers where [I thought] I was being obscenely clever and incisive, Cora wrote: “‘Question everything.’ – René Decartes.” She chose not to rip the paper apart for the piece of garbage it was. Yes, she gave critical feedback, but she also gave encouragement. She didn’t roll her eyes at my pretend-scholarly attack on some literary work that I didn’t like: she encouraged subversion. I didn’t have to be told twice.

After that class, I didn’t see Cora again until chance put me in her path four years later. I was elated to see her randomly in a coffee shop. She seemed glad to see me, too, and we caught up with each other about where we were and where we were going. I have not seen her since, although I have tried to keep up with where her career has gone (she is a badass professor at a good school and teaches awesome-sounding classes, now).

Shortly thereafter, I joined Peace Corps and moved to Cambodia. Cora completed her PhD and moved forward with her academic career. We fell out of touch again.

Some more years passed; I found myself parting from Peace Corps under dubious and humiliating circumstances. For whatever reason, I chose to write Cora. I guess I trusted her not to judge me– she’d had so many opportunities to judge me when I was her student, and I am sure that I frustrated her to no end, but she’d always responded with compassion. I wrote her and related what had happened to me at the end of my Peace Corps service, how I was struggling to get by and at the same time happy that I stayed in Cambodia. I don’t know what kind of response I expected– maybe surprised, scolding disappointment, like my mom’s reaction, or disillusioned lack of surprise, like my best friend Eileen.

She wrote back with this: “Listen to me:  You have no reason to be ashamed. You have a rare gift–the inability to accept what you know is not right, not just, not fair, not pure.” Having read that, I started crying. I felt small, unworthy, relieved, validated, protected. But I quickly sobered up. She continued:

Now I am going to tell you something: This is your life. This being on the margins, always fighting, this is your life.  Have you thought of what it will be like to live a life on the margins (as bell hooks terms it)? Are you prepared to go against the grain for the rest of your life and accept the consequences, some of which you are feeling right now? Think about that and get back to me.  It doesn’t get easier, Liz. It gets lonelier and harder. Are you O.K. with that? I need for you to really think about this and answer honestly. To some students I would say, “What are you going to do with your life?”  But to you, I have to say, “Who are you going to be for the rest of your life?”

 

Like a ten-year-old, I switched from humiliated, fearful self-doubt to look-on-the-bright-side, foot-sure self-confidence, and wrote back:

For whatever fortunate and unfortunate reason, I guess this is where I am: on the margins. But I suppose it’s all about perspective. Some day my thoughts, ideas, hopes, and such might not be “fringe” concepts, but that time is not now. I struggled most of my young adult life to fit in and not go against the grain, but failed at every turn. You’re right: that’s just not me. But I’m finally starting to accept that this is not a bad thing!

.      .      .

2011 Me: It’s hard, but everything’s gonna be okay! Let’s just keep fighting the good fight!

2017 Me: stfu.

So…

Some of the shit I wrote that Cora read, I look back on it now and I am beet-red with embarrassment. Some of it is the most gag-worthy whitestream feminist blather you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like, saying it was written ‘out of ignorance’ is a bit too kind, maybe. The residue of my privileged, white, small town upbringing (various oppressive circumstances notwithstanding) clings like smelly lakeweed too long out of the water. For a tasting sample, scroll back in time on this blog (or, for everyone’s sake, please don’t…).

To me, Cora embodies the empathic feminist ethos I wish I could achieve in my day-to-day, as well as my teaching, friendly conversations, class discussions, confrontations… Sometimes I wish she had called me out with anger and scorn, used the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘epistemic ignorance.’ These tactics can be effective, too– I know from personal experience (here’s looking at you, Dee [not her real name]). Some Crunk Feminist Collective-style, Black feminist smackdown. But I think Cora, more savvy than Morpheus, probably recognized that 2004 Liz, and even 2011 Liz, wasn’t ready for the Red Pill. Maybe she saw that my fragile ego would collapse from too much truth-telling. Maybe she was thinking, I don’t need you to spend years in self-pitying recovery, wallowing in ‘white guilt’– I need you to get over white supremacy now and do your part to tear it down. Maybe she thought I needed to figure this shit out on my own, that she couldn’t be my teacher forever; at some point, we all need to take responsibility for our own learning, using the toolbox passed on to us by our teachers. Maybe it was a combination of logics, or maybe I’m overthinking it.

Cora was right: it doesn’t get easier, it gets lonelier and harder. I wonder about how her life has been. I imagine she has struggled and fought and confronted and been forced to pick and choose which hills she wanted to die on. I imagine friends and allies were few and far between at times, but the ones who stuck around are still with her today. I imagine she has fist-pumped after victories over racist, misogynist, and especially misogynoir colleagues, classmates, and coworkers. I imagine she has cried from frustration and laughed in the safety of like-minded friends. I imagine a lot of things, and probably romanticize a lot because that’s what I tend to do with people I admire, especially teachers.

The thing that I am certain she knew at the time she wrote those words to me, and the thing I have come to realize, is that even in the depths of loneliness and failure; even in times when we are constantly losing, or feel like we are living in a hell we deserve because of self-loathing brought on by internalized misogyny or queerphobia or whatever else; there is hope and compassion to be found in fellowship and community with others. My ego got the better of me for a very long time: no one knows what I’m going through, no one sees or understands. Well that is self-isolating rubbish. It feels very true and real at times, but I’ve struck on a rare moment of optimism where I feel that I can see Cora’s next, yet unwritten letter: she’s going to tell me that although it gets lonelier and harder, we find people who share our struggles; though we feel lonely, we’re not alone. Maybe we haven’t encountered these people yet, or maybe they resurface from the long-ago, or maybe they revisit us in dreams or memories. These aren’t just consolation prizes, they are reasons to keep pushing on The Wall (as Sara Ahmed describes it).

It is safe to say that I would not have done a masters in Women’s and Gender Studies; would not be attending #NoDAPL rallies; would not be fundraising for disadvantaged students; would not be writing this blog; and would not be a member of a union without the wisdom of certain people in my life. Some of them I only cross paths with once in a great while, like Cora; some I know only by Twitter handle; some are constants, like my mom, Eileen, Erin, my sister, Karlie, Preston, Matt, and many others who have continuously listened, engaged, challenged, and prompted me, and of course continue to teach me about what’s important.

Advertisements

Reblog: Dangerously Provocative

Feminist Philosophers

Jessica Wolfendale (co-editor of Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone)  is currently completing an article on sexual modesty. Her most recent article, “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” is forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. and now she’s just published a piece on being “dangerously provocative” here.

The provocatively dressed woman is dangerous. She is disruptive; a distraction and a temptation. She can lead good men to thoughts of infidelity; she can distract men and boys from the important tasks of work and education. The dangers posed by the provocatively dressed woman mean that she must be monitored and controlled. Girls must be forbidden from wearing provocative clothing to school, so that they don’t distract boys.[2] As a principal of a Canadian High School wrote in a letter to parents: “Girls wearing short skirts should think about how they sit and what is revealed when…

View original post 165 more words

Reblog: NWSA Executive Committee Letter on Pulse Nightclub Tragedy

The NWSA Executive Committee sent the following letter by email to its members earlier today. It does a good job (especially the third paragraph) of showing how different forms of violence and seemingly disparate attacks, though not to be conflated, are interconnected through broader cultural currents.

Dear NWSA members,

As members of the Executive Committee, we write to express our collective outrage over the attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during its Latinx-themed night. We recognize this heinous act for the hate crime it is against LGBTQ people, people of color, and those who live at the intersection of these communities. In this difficult time, we urge our community of scholars, educators, and activists to draw on the insights of feminist/anti-racist/queer activists and thinkers to address hatred and violence, imagine alternatives to domination, and foster community.

We draw on an intersectional political framework to call for the collective liberation of all. Given that systemic racism, misogyny, ableism, colonialism, and homophobia are deeply interconnected, we condemn the Islamophobia that has emerged in the wake of the attack and urge you, our members, to find ways to contest the widespread culture of violence that surrounds us, including histories of violence against queer and trans people of color. This culture of domination is local and global, intimate and structural, and is pervasive. It includes: harassment and discrimination; gender violence, rape culture, and murder; the criminalization of divergent lives/bodies/loves and the violence of the carceral state; silencing, dispossession, and erasure; eugenic and genocidal practices; colonial gendered violence against Indigenous people; and militarization and war.

Diverse forms of brutality must be understood as distinct and yet interconnected. It is essential to think through how the Pulse nightclub shooting, the church shootings in Charleston, the murder of Indigenous women in Canada, and the murder of transgender sex workers in Brazil and elsewhere are interrelated without collapsing the important differences in each of these, and many other, contexts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that should highlight the role we all can play in refusing and resisting a culture of violence wherever we find it.

In this time of mourning and remembrance, we call on you, our NWSA members, to confront domination, intolerance, and hatred—in the intimacies of everyday life and on a wider, macro-political scale. We also underscore the importance of supporting each other and being mindful of the impact of myriad violences on ourselves, each other, our students, and our scholarship. Though the work at hand may be difficult, our collective labors to understand how systems of oppression are interlaced and must be thought through and addressed together are pivotal and deeply relevant.

Sincerely,

Vivian M. May, President
Nana Osei-Kofi, Vice President
Diane Harriford, Treasurer
Carrie Baker, Secretary

Reblog: Sara Ahmed on Walls, Silences, and Sexual Harassment

“The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point.”

“Sexual harassment works – as does bullying more generally – by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something, even if that acceptance is itself how you end up being diminished; how you end up taking up less and less space.”

“It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to be getting on with it; you can end up doubting yourself; estranged from yourself. Maybe then you try not to have a problem. But you are left with a sickening feeling. A feminist gut knows something is amiss.”

 I have used the terms “critical sexism” and “critical racism” to describe this: the sexism and racism reproduced by those who think of themselves as too critical to be sexist or racist. There is more to it. Many academics who identify as progressive or radicals, position themselves as working against the institution, against the requirements, say, of audit culture, and managerialism.  Then how quickly: equality as such becomes identified as the requirements of a managerial system, that is, as a way of managing unruly bodies and desires. Noncompliance with equality even becomes articulated as political rebellion.  For example one academic describes the “strictures on sexual harassment” as an “old Victorian moral panic.” Feminism becomes translated as moralism; those who challenge sexual harassment are understood as imposing moral norms and social restrictions on otherwise “free radicals.” So much harassment is reproduced by the framing of the language of harassment as what is imposed on a situation (as if to use this word is to be mean, to deprive a body of its pleasures).”

“Sexual harassment as a system cannot be separated from the ongoing problem of how a privileged few reproduce a world around their bodies.”

 

Read the full post: Sexual Harassment

Reblog: Safety Tips for Sophia Katz

Reblogged from the Belle Jar.

The Belle Jar

Trigger warning for rape

When my grandmother was eighteen and freshly out of high school, she got a job doing clerical work at Pier 21 in Halifax. Pier 21 was the landing spot and first point of contact for those immigrating to Canada across the Atlantic ocean, and my grandmother helped process paperwork. She loved her job. She especially loved learning people’s stories, poring over their forms and finding out where they came from, what their children’s names were, and what possessions they’d chosen to bring with them all the way to this strange new country. You can tell a lot about a person and their priorities, apparently, based on what stuff they believe is worth hauling across the cold, grey Atlantic.

My grandmother was only able to work at Pier 21 for a few months, though, because it was just too exhausting for her father. Why? Well, because her shift ended…

View original post 1,238 more words