Tag Archives: teaching

All that we see or seem

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Two things happened in the last month. The first is that I came out to my students – gender-wise, and my unconformity. The second is that I wrote a thing for my department’s newsletter about social media and how I use it. I didn’t realize those how connected those things were until about ten minutes ago.

There’s a third thing that I think might be behind most of that connection, which is that I will not be receiving funding next year. That in itself isn’t necessarily something to be angry about – I got more than a lot of grad students get, nationwide – but how it happened was, without going into detail, less than satisfactory, and I’ve been doing some major reevaluating about my place here and my relationship with this institution and what it all means to me personally. And what started as real anger has turned into a kind of freedom I didn’t expect.

I don’t care anymore.

Which, ironically, might mean that I can actually care about the right things for the first time in my entire graduate school career.

So  I came out to my students. I explained what “genderqueer” meant, and then I put myself up there as an example. I did it mostly in passing – an “and I’m that, so you know what that is already” – but it felt big.

It’s not the first time I’ve come out to a class, and it wasn’t the first time this semester where I used myself as an example. I’m a weird confluence of identity categories, exactly like most people: white, middle/upper middle class in many respects but growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood on a lower middle class income, born with a female body but not identifying that way in terms of my gender, sexually sort of all over the place, able-bodied but possessing a wacky constellation of mental illnesses, disorders, and cognitive disabilities. Whatever, nobody’s normal, we all agreed. There’s no such thing.

I had not yet been informed that I wouldn’t be funded. Maybe some part of me knew already that this semester was different.

It’s always an interesting question, how much of yourself you reveal to a class. How much of yourself you reveal to yourself. Coming out to someone about anything strange or uncomfortable makes that person into kind of a mirror; see yourself through their eyes and suddenly you might see something different. It might not be true, but it’s there. In my mid-twenties I came to an understanding of myself as genderqueer, but I’ve never been comfortable with gender, and I’ve never been comfortable with my body, and I’ve always felt like my mind was actively trying to hurt me. I’m not comfortable with anything. At all. Ever. But life has become a process of getting to be Okay with that, and talking about it to other people is part of how I’ve been getting there.

So then I wasn’t funded, and while I’ve been decoupling from Giving A Shit since my comprehensive exams, this finally kicked me away completely.

Abruptly I was saying everything. I was just talking. I told them a lot, in private and in the classroom itself. My final class, I sat on a table in front of my students and I told them the story of the last few weeks. I told them I wouldn’t be teaching again in the fall and how sad that made me. I told them how angry I was. I told them about how diseased higher education is, and about how increasingly their own institutions are cheating them. And I told them what I had realized, after many conversations with wise people: We don’t have to stay here. We don’t have to chain ourselves to failing institutions. We can make space elsewhere for the work we want to do. For some of us it’s easy and for some of us it’s so much harder, but we have to try. Those of us with power have to step back and empower others. It’s painful, this kind of self-confrontation.

But it was more painful to keep lying to them, and lying by omission is still a lie.

I’ve made 2014 the year I started writing my rage, and now I’m making it the year I stopped lying and started talking. I’m making this space aggressively, with my fists and my fingernails and my feet, with my tongue and my teeth. I’m learning how to live in my body. I’m working on not being afraid anymore.

I wrote this for the newsletter, among other things:

We’re taught that we’re not supposed to do that, to be vulnerable. Life teaches us this, but I think academia teaches it especially hard. When you’re in graduate school you’re highly susceptible to fear—What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to find a job? What do all these faculty think of me? How am I coming off? Does so and so hate me? Am I letting people down? Oh God. That kind of fear can break you, but keeping it inside for even greater fear of looking weak makes it even worse, and at some point I decided I couldn’t do that anymore.

It’s more terrifying for me, now, to continue to pretend I’m not terrified. So I’m going to stop. I’m going to dare to be a human being in the most public of ways. We’ll see what happens.

~

Sometimes, when I’m in a certain place in my head, I imagine slicing my chest open with a boxcutter. Somehow it’s sharp enough to pierce the sternum, and I pull my ribcage apart with my bare hands. A flock of crows explodes into the air. There’s never any blood. Inside I’m smooth and clean and full of whispering birds.

This is what we believe

I’m putting together a teaching portfolio – whee, fun – and I’m going through whatever I can stick in there to make me look attractive. I’m including this essay I wrote for The Sociological Cinema (amazing resource) and I had forgotten most of it – and the last couple of paragraphs are still poignant for me. As I’m thinking more and more about why I write and what I really want to get out of it and why I think it’s important, I’m seeing more and more ways in which those things connect to the rest of what I do.

Writing is teaching and writing is learning. It’s a toolkit and the tools are incredibly versatile. We ignore this to our detriment.

Fiction in general – and speculative fiction in particular – is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth – on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like. And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward those alternatives.

Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.

Sunday linkdump: Everything I love is on the table

image by Rob Wanenchak

There is a lot this week.

  • I wrote a thing for The Sociological Cinema on teaching with SF and the myths that underpin social inequality.

    Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

  • “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters.” What it’s like to be a woman saying things and writing books. There is some potentially triggering stuff in here about rape (non-explicit) and general misogyny. I have no particular triggers and I found it upsetting.

    I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it. A few months later, after delivering a lecture on the media-invented “mommy wars” at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, a song pops up on my iPhone as I’m walking back to my hotel room: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “When you ain’t got nothing,” Dylan sings, “you got nothing to lose.”

    Yes, I think. Yes.

  • “‘You’ve Lost Weight! You Look Great!’ Isn’t a Compliment.” I have felt this forever but haven’t articulated it to myself anywhere near this well, and oh my god yes yes yes

    When we think of it in that way, it’s not such a great compliment. It’s a set-up for self-consciousness and negative self-judgment of our past selves. When remarking on weight loss is offered as a compliment, the speaker clearly thinks that there’s been a noticeable and notable improvement in how the person looks. Without the normative standard of “thinner is better,” the comment would have no value as a compliment at all.

  • “Why I Will Still #uninstallmendeley.” If you use academic citation software, if you care about the state of academic publishing, if you care about justice and righteousness, read.

    If Mendeley wants to hitch their horse to the Monsanto of academic publishing they can be my guest. The service will probably be amazing. But remember that the money they gave you –all the new resources you have at your disposal– were purchased with tuition money and charitable donations that should have gone to higher education. Instead, it went to Elsevier (and Thompson Reuter, and Springer and…) so that they could find new and inventive ways of hiding research so that they could continue to charge exorbitant prices.

  • “Autofill Mythologies.” Fantastic piece on information and imagination and our experiences of difficult urban spaces.

    Lewis Lapham once argued that the imagined city, the one of our collective making, is realer than what we’re fed by maps and demographics, buildings and structures. The ideas, the symbols, ultimately carry more for us than the realities of its dwellers—the people in the neighborhoods that you see when you’re walking down the street.

  • “Needing a Bigger N+1.” This is a wonderfully biting response to a terrible essay on why critical sociology is useless and how there’s too much of it. That piece is actually not worth reading if you don’t want to; the response summarizes its major points pretty well.

    Insofar as you want to make an institutional critique of sociology… well, I pay an extraordinary (for me) fee to a disciplinary association tasked with intervening in public debates and government policy. We have strong disciplinary traditions and mythologies of activism, including Hull House and the Feminist Wire. We give a fecking ASA award. I’m not saying our house is 100% in order, but if I have to shift into your all/nothing, everyone/no one idiom, I’m going to say we’re all clear.

  • “When Facebook Stopped Being Fun.” Facebook users are growing up. This does not entirely bode well for Facebook.

    Facebook is like a nightmarishly intense, never-ending school reunion where all of the people you don’t really want to talk to get to expose their lives in self-congratulatory detail. Resentment for that is remarkably difficult to dispel.

  • “The writer’s neuroses.” All of this is so incredibly painfully true.

    What if my life work, these novels that I have tried to make as clear and articulate and passion-filled and honest and intelligent and entertaining and genre-resistant and accessible as I can manage, aren’t judged to be among the best? Well, as I will find out the news in a hotel room on my own I will probably end up crying on the edge of a bed while shoving salted cashews into my mouth and wishing I’d never ever written a vampire novel.

  • “Academia’s indentured servants.” Basically the system to which I have given ten years of my life and a great deal of my mental health is completely broken. I knew that because I’m IN IT, but still.

    To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

  • “The entrepreneurial activism of Tim LaHaye’s theologized politics.” hey everyone Tim LaHaye is a very bad person

    Consider this: from 1995 through 2007, Tim LaHaye co-authored a series of runaway best-sellers steeped in John Birch Society ideology. During those years he sold more than 60 million copies of books that served as propaganda for a particular political agenda. The tea party movement sprang up in 2009, espousing the exact neo-Bircher ideology and agenda promoted in LaHaye’s novels. Is that just a remarkable coincidence?

But there is The National.