Confessions (and Accusations)

The moral precept that I struggle most with is the command that I feel deep in my conscience to not worry about what others are doing.

Fifteen years ago, I never worried what others were doing. I was easy-going, tolerant of different behaviors (if a bit aloof), non-judgmental, and, conversely, generally self-satisfied, content, and well... happy.

Then when I was 18, a freshman in an introductory college composition course, luck of the draw put me into JW's class. Although she was in her early fifties, she had recently finished her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from a mid-level Midwestern university. She introduced us to Foucault in the second week of class. In the first class she asked us to list all of the synonyms we could think of for penis, and then for vagina, to prove that, because there are more synonyms for vagina, we were obviously living in a patriarchal society. I had contributed something like eleven synonyms for vagina during that exercise. One assignment called for us to "do a semiotic analysis of a personal space." Trusting as I was, I decided to do just what the professor said, so I went home and looked around my room.

I noted that I was making the most of my small personal space, jotted down a few other observations that were apparently uninteresting to my professor, and then inadvertently gave her the red-meat she was looking for: "The posters of the bikini-clad women taped to my walls," I began, "feature good looking women making eye-contact with the camera. I suppose it produces the illusion that they're looking at me, and I like--"

My professor was "horrified," and called me into her office, to explain to me that my bedroom's decor was... sexist. I got a B in the class, even though my writing was very clearly technically better than some of my friends who earned A's. Not incidentally, she asked me with a smile whether she might use my essay as an example in an article she was working on. [The article was never published, except as a conference paper as part of the proceedings--she used me as an example of a student who needed enlightening, more or less.]

Since then, I've struggled with judging others. I tend to be indirect about it, but chances are, if I've spent any time with you, I'm dissatisfied with some aspect of your personal behavior. Indeed, I wouldn't mind seeing you behave a little more like me. Furthermore, since that ambush my freshman year, I'm less likely to be satisfied with my own situation in life, and I frequently catch myself comparing my own situation (material, spiritual, etc.) to others'.

Although I keep my criticisms of others to myself--and try to keep my whining about comparative well-being to myself--I am not a better person for these traits. I can affect an open-minded persona, of course (I fooled my dissertation committee), but I have become a tyrant inside, and the worst kind: one who lacks self-esteem.

Ironically, paradoxically, the prelapserian me, the Edenic me who hadn't been through the rigors of freshman composition class, would have simply taken all of this in stride--would even have confidently assumed that everyone felt similarly, and would have made the most of it--might even have shrugged it all off. But I picked-up on and internalized the skills of the critical/judgmental thinking executed-on me freshmen year, and so my reaction now, immoral and uncouth as I know it sounds, is to blame my fallen state on JW and her judgmental pedagogy. The lonely dried up bitch.


pure_sophist_monster said...

I would argue that what happened to you your Freshman year was terrible. In fact, one of the most terrible things that can be done to a student, particularly a Freshman. It is troubling, but not completely surprising that this person had a PhD in rhetoric and composition. Although I think there is probably something in the age at which she came to rhetoric (her formative training seems very anti-rhetoric). Wrangler should chime in here with some stories about folks in rhetoric aggressively challenging just this kind of pedagogy as it occurs in rhet/comp. Thomas Rickert's book (Acts of Enjoyment) is such a critique (in part) of what some trace to a Cultural Studies influence in rhet/comp. This idea of pedagogy as "Enlightenment" is antithetical to rhetoric as many of my colleagues and I imagine and enact it. And one the primary reasons is that like other forms of abuse it often reproduces itself through the trauma.

pure_sophist_monster said...

This is from a review of Rickert's book: "Whereas cultural studies pedagogy 'aspires to be ethical, noble, and good' it falls short of such goals by '[bringing] with it phantasmatic assumptions about society, harmony, and conflict that directly shape its sense of the good and its praxis' (136). Rickert argues that psychoanalysis might offer a more ethical approach by resisting the urge to think that our teaching has created 'critical, autonomous agents' (119)."

Casey said...

This is a narrative I've been telling & interpreting for 14 years now... I've gone through some interesting phases. When I was 24, I was convinced that she did me a favor. I sort of felt that I had been enlightened: "Now I'm not sexist." But then I realized that I didn't stop enjoying the gaze of a bikini-babe, and started to feel confused. Now I'm reproducing the tyranny as a result of the trauma (well said!).

I like what Rickert says. The thing is, I want there to be an in-between space... somewhere Martin Buber said (I'm paraphrasing), "When I am asked what sin is, I know immediately with regard to myself; but I have no idea what it is for others." So although we can't and shouldn't judge by external standards, we might (I think) work to create or--what?--"catalyze" (?) autonomous selves who are, or who become, capable of knowing what sin is with regard to themselves.

It involves circumlocution, somehow. :)

倪平 said...