bourgeois struggle

Today I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of being overly bourgeois. Of course, in an empirical sense, that’s just true and there can be no debate. I’m a college professor with a PhD and a steady income. What I’m really concerned about is being so wrapped up in my own concerns and my comfort to the exclusion of noticing the discomfort (oppression) of others. Probably this is a worry caused by suddenly having too much time on my hands (how bourgeois).

I know though, or I think I know, from experience that it’s important for me to hold myself responsible to this concern. Very few other people will. In fact, if this isn’t just a response to too much (bourgeois) time on my (soft) hands in my (single family) house, it could be because I just emailed one of the few friends in my life who does actually hold me accountable to the meaning of militancy.

The email involved a lot of guilt on my part. My friend is someone I met doing fieldwork in Buenos Aires, where I haven’t managed to return for a full two years, my longest period of absence since I first started my research there in 2008. It’s important to me that my research and militancy in Argentina is actual committed militancy and not just a temporary relationship that serves my academic needs, and when I fail to prioritize contact with my compas there it becomes harder for me to convince myself that this is the case. On top of that more general guilt, I also hadn’t emailed this friend directly in a very long time, which always makes me feel bad (and since I have a lot of friends and write few emails, I feel this guilt a lot).

As an excuse and in order to catch up, I explained to my friend that the last year has been a really big one for me: I finished writing the dissertation we’ve talked so much about, got my PhD, moved to a new town, and began life as an assistant professor. I lamented that I did not have much news to report in the way of struggles or movements I’ve been involved in here in the United States. Now, most of my friends would understand this, and would start immediately pointing out how many classes I’ve taught this year and how overwhelming it has been (and they wouldn’t be wrong: in the last year I taught 7 classes, 4 preps, and 3 new preps, for those of you keeping score). But I know that this friend is not going to do that. She is going to be disappointed in me, or at least be unimpressed with my excuses and wish that I was doing more with all my yanqui privilege. My biggest fear is that she’s going to feel I’ve confirmed her suspicion that I have settled into the identity of bourgeois professor who feels that writing, researching, and teaching are activism (which they are not—maybe I’ll post about that another day).

bourgeois prof

One of the things I love about this friend is that her presence in my life helps me resist becoming precisely this kind of non-militant academic. I wish that more of my friendships kept me accountable in this way, and I wonder why they don’t. Is it too hard to point this out to one another? Is it a devastating critique to suggest to your friends that they ought to spend a little more time out in the streets (or practicing liberation in covert spaces), especially when your friends are academics who know what a difference that time could make? Academia is full of people who talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. I myself often point out that fact about people, but I rarely hold friends and colleagues accountable for it to their faces.

I suspect my feeling (particularly) bourgeois is related to my disconnection from other militants. Militants, after all, are by definition people who do actually hold each other accountable to the necessity of struggling for a better world. Academics do not do this. More often we help each other find reasons why we are too busy doing other things.

In my case, I have in fact been filling my time with meaningful pursuits, many of which I know are really important for the pursuit of lifelong militancy rather than the more intense brand one can usually only sustain for a few years in their 20s. But I am also suddenly faced with a feeling that I’ve been very focused on myself and unconnected to the struggle for liberation, and it’s time to change that. It’s true I’m in it for the long haul, and it’s true that I live in a smallish town where barging in with a new idea for radical struggle without first understanding the local terrain could make it impossible for me to do much for the next 10 years. But it’s also true that if I never get started, if I never get committed (or recommitted, again and again), I may just get more comfortable. And more removed from those compas and militants who will push and inspire me.

3.8, 3.91, 4.01, 3.9

That is my evaluation. My teaching evaluation for 4 sections of strategy. In this popularity context, I am an almost-4 out of 5. That’s good. That’s great. I’m safe. No longer in the at-risk-of-being-asked-to-take-pedagogy-classes category of loser-teachers, the ones talked about with sighs and head shakes – she’s-great-but-can-sometimes-be-hard-to-get-along-with. Thank God I’m no longer in this talked-about set. It can beat you down, this exposure and this number, so clean and stark like a blade…a 2 out of 5- God! people must really hate you, you unlikable bitch.

I dare you to be a woman, an Asian woman to boot, and survive intact with a 2 out of 5 on likeability; anything is preferable, I’d even prefer ‘slut’ to ‘unlikeable.’ Last year by chance, an admin-glitch, students evaluated me before I taught the class, and guess what these numbers were – 3.5/5. The average teaching evaluations in the department are 3.00 – so Yes! On average, students prefer our absence to our presence.

“Why this number, ‘Quality of professor?’” you may ask. It seems perverse. Why not what they actually learned, why not a pre and post-test to see if they learned something from class; it’s simple enough to do online. I don’t know why. It is just not done. Meyer and Rowan say that it is ceremony and myth – all of academia – assessment decoupled from practice. It makes sense then why things are so difficult for me here – if the primary aim is ceremony and legitimation, then a skinny brown Indian woman, in need of legitimation herself, is not the best person for the job.

After 5 years in the trenches of clawing my way up from 3.2 to 4.01, I’ve finally lost all the idealistic nonsense that filled my head about this job being one where I can REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE. 90% of the class cannot survive 5 minutes without checking their phones. Plus, these are the clear-eyed practical ones who chose business as their major, they understand how the world works a lot better than I do, and aren’t here wanting for me to REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE in their lives. They are the customer and what they want is good packaging and paiysa-vasool.

Maybe there is some point to teaching something else, things like physics or math or gender studies….but what is the point in teaching business? – it seems more efficient just to have extremely selective criteria (so you weed out based on certain types of IQ and on class and generational wealth), charge high fees (to make doubly sure of the weeding), get people to spend time together (so they get a network of other-people-like-them) and then give them the stamp of a big-10 school. Why go through all this trouble – like in INSEAD, a colleague, another PhD, a woman, an assistant professor teaching strategy, went through the usual hazing process, and in her class, a student walked out and then walked back in naked. Students who can make a teacher cry win the weekly betting pool – it is all in fun of course, and is meant for bonding, a noble goal.

On my good days, I give myself pep-talks – “Don’t think on the 70 cell-phone obsessed zombies in your class; Instead meditate on that one girl who was mostly silent in class, but turned in the most brilliant memo with hours of additional analysis, and then came to office-hours and asked the best questions and showed you how she put together all the data she collected. Think on her. Don’t be discouraged by the students who showed up to 2 out of 4 sessions, turned in a crappy memo with nice graphics and a whole lot of talk about brand image, and then emailed you demanding why they haven’t got an ‘A.’ Instead remember the Indian girl who came to you on the first class as if she’d just sighted a unicorn; delight and thoughts clear on her face – “My God – are you real? You are the business strategy teacher?!” I remind myself to stingy-store away these incidents, to take out and look at and admire and remind myself that there is some larger purpose to all this pain.

On my bad-days, the days when persistent magical thinking (example, the world is really a fair place and good things happen to those who work hard, or content really is what ultimately matters) clears, I instead remember the fruitless-pointless hours improving content. I remember snippets of wisdom that white men with teaching awards sometimes slip up and reveal: “teach right after a 2/5 – you’ll look good in comparison,” “teach the internationals, the Chinese are the best, Spaniards, Indians, anyone but the French for whom no one is more than a pas mal 3”, “never show vulnerability,” “answer questions with many words (it doesn’t matter which)”, “don’t provide grades/feedback until you’ve been evaluated,” “end class early,” and the best-one-yet, “show them who’s boss – tell them they are stupid if they make a stupid comment.” These words were perhaps well-meaning but make me feel foolish and don’t help – a brown woman who says nothing and tells people they’re stupid?! – I’m not into professional suicide, at least not yet.

Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

Ode to Idyllic Places

Why is it that idyllic places that are green everywhere the eye can see, with no glass monstrosities marring beauty, why is it that these places are also the most explicit in their misogyny? The West does a good job of hiding hate beneath layers of talk about equality and anti-discrimination and diversity. Idyllic places show no such artifice, and a part of me admires this honest cruelty – it seems easier to battle something that is visible and out-in-the-open. I come from an idyllic place and everytime I take my husband and kids there, I feel pride and yearning and I want them to love-this-place-like-I-do, and I spend much time translating away all the weirdness, and equal time cringing in horror, angry at all the unnecessary ignorance. If I give directions to the taxi driver while my husband stands silent, the taxi driver becomes monosyllabic and rude and finds it hard to answer basic questions like the rate and how long it will take to reach; at the temple, if I step forward ahead of the husband (yes, I do that, badly bought up that I am) and ask the priest what time the darshan will start, he averts his eyes and mumbles to the floor since talking to me, a woman, will risk…I don’t know what…something horrific is sure to happen; oh and then there are the countless men at every store who speak to my chest (I am flat chested but that does not seem to discourage them); at the ancestral home, my aunts are sweet and motherly and stand as we eat, waiting to serve us, and then they ask me later what my husband does (and I tell them, failing to mention what I do, filling in all the empty spaces with much talk about the kids – why spoil a perfectly smooth interaction and the yummiest meal I’ve had in years); at the neighbour’s house, the girl whispers and asks me how I snagged him, my husband (because he is fair and I am not, and my parents must have paid a bomb to purchase such a fair husband for me); and all the advertisements for cholis and dhotis and elaborate silk sarees have happy-looking white people modelling them (tis better to be white, even when wearing a fully embroidered gold and red colored Ghagra and Cholli); and then on our last day in my idyllic homeland, a kindly aunt compliments me that my daughter is fair – she is being nice – it is much harder to marry off a dark-skinned girl and all the marriage ads are full of “wheatish” skinned prospects – no one of marriageable age in Kerala is brown. Let’s not even get started about racism and homophobia, and all the sly comments about “those people”…..

No. Idyllic places cannot be accused of pretence – hate is all very explicit and clear.