Saturday, May 31, 2014

But I DID go to school in New England!

L. V. Anderson has an article in Slate whose title pretty much sums up its content: "People Still Say They 'Went to College in Boston,' Meaning Harvard? Please Stop Doing This."

It's an article of interest to maybe 5% of the entire internet, but since I'm part of that 5%, I'll take the bait. Do I do this now? Of course not. But when I was 18 to 24 I did it plenty of times. If I was back home working a temp job for the summer or making small talk with a hairdresser or dental hygienist, then sure. I'd say I go to school "back east" or "in New England."

Anderson gives passing attention to the explanation that I'd have given for why I did this--that announcing your fancy-pants affiliation derails conversation, leads to awkwardness, and so forth--but she concludes that "it is not your job to anticipate and preemptively manage another person's emotional response to your biography. If you tell people you went to Harvard and they respond by freaking out, that reflects poorly on them." On the other hand, if you "withhold" the name of your college from someone else,

that reflects poorly on you--it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority. To fear the effects of the word "Harvard" is to take Harvard way too seriously. Once you understand that Harvard is just a college, and that getting into Harvard probably had more to do with your socioeconomic background and the luck of the draw. . . the cagey "college in Boston" response starts to sound very, very silly.

Now, if we're talking about recent college grads talking to other recent college grads--friends of friends at a party, new co-workers, whatever--and hiding the name of their alma mater, then I'd agree: it's douchey and patronizing to think that you're somehow protecting other people's self-esteem by not mentioning the name of a school you presume they didn't get into. But Anderson misunderstands the context in which most of this coyness occurs, or the kind of awkwardness that this evasiveness is meant to forestall. Most undergrads at fancy schools (like most PhDs) have had the experience of saying something neutral that mentions their educational background--only to receive some weird, sarcastic, and/or hostile response along the lines of, "Oooooh. Can I touch you?" or mock bows or genuflections. If that happens a few times (that is, if you get responses that assume you're bragging or are stuck-up just for answering a question truthfully) then you learn to avoid bringing it up if it's not strictly necessary.

Moreover, most people who are cagey about where they went to college know perfectly well that the rest of the world doesn't actually care where they went to school, even when it's asked as a direct question. Most people who ask the question are just making small talk and looking for a casual opportunity for connection. If all your aunt's friend from church really wants to know is whether you're an Oregon or Oregon State fan--or if you might have gone to the same school as her kid or her sister or her nephew--then saying you went to some far-away school with a fancy name changes the conversation she thought she were having.

Most of the time, when I said "back east," my interlocutors didn't ask "where?" They said, "oh wow, that's far." Or, "do you have family there, too?" Or "how do you like it? I hear it snows a lot." They were just making chit-chat, and I'd given them an answer that kept the conversation on that level. (And if they actually asked, "but what school?" I'd tell them.)

Reading Anderson's essay, though, made me realize that it's been a long time since I gave an evasive answer to a question about my educational background. Some of that is just pragmatic: I'm old enough that "where did you go to college?" is no longer the first (or second, or third) thing people ask. And I live in the East, and most of the people I meet are interested in higher education.

But most importantly: I'M A COLLEGE PROFESSOR. I HAVE A PH.D. If people are going to act weird about something in my educational history, it's my having a Ph.D. in English ("Oh, boy. So I guess I have to watch my grammar around you!")

Maybe the other thing that's changed is where I live and where I work. When someone in Cha-Cha City asks me what I do, and then asks me where I went to school, I'm pleased by both parts of the equation. I like my city and I like my job, and it's good for my neighbors to know that RU has highly-trained and well-credentialed faculty who are thrilled to be there. It reflects well on the community and the state university system. (And if they're the ones inclined to be snobbish--about where I teach, or about public colleges in general--then I'm happy enough to unsettle their presumptions.)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Not magic

By now you've probably all read the NYT Magazine piece on the University of Texas's efforts to increase retention among their poorer and first-generation students--but if you haven't, go read it now. Although some of UT's strategies involve additional academic support (in the form of smaller section sizes, peer mentors, and access to tutoring), the most mind-blowing part of the article is the evidence that even incredibly small interventions can have statistically significant results.

Several slightly different studies, conducted at different colleges and universities, show that just 30 minutes, at the beginning of a student's college career, can be enough to keep at-risk students enrolled. In one series of studies, students were assigned to read letters from current upperclassmen that described their own feelings of not belonging in their freshman year--and then how they settled in and eventually realized that everyone feels that way. In another series of studies, students were assigned a short article that laid out the scientific evidence against a static theory of intelligence (i.e., arguing that practice is more important than initial aptitude). In both cases, the students were asked to read the essay and then summarize it in their own words, as if conveying it to another incoming student. Even without any follow-up or any further interventions, their drop-out rates plummeted--sometimes by more than 50%.

(Interestingly, there was no effect on students from more prosperous backgrounds. The theory is that although all students can suffer from feelings of not belonging--or can have their confidence shaken by an early academic failure--wealthier students are more likely to know or to hear from family members that this is normal and will pass. Students without that kind of support are in greater danger of assuming they really don't belong in college.)

What I love about this is that we're not talking about heroic interventions and we're not imagining teachers as magical saviors. These are students who are perfectly capable of succeeding but who benefit from a little more affirmation that they can succeed; they still have to bust ass and live through some self-doubt and some rough patches. I also like the fact that it validates what I've come to do in my own classes, which is to emphasize that everything I teach involves learned (and learnable) skills. I frequently say things like, "understanding poetry isn't magic" and "no one is born knowing how to write a literary-critical essay."

But here's the thing: I didn't develop this approach as a specific response to the RU student population; I started saying similar things when I was teaching students at my Ivy alma mater. Whether it's first-generation college students or tightly-wound overachievers, most students benefit from being told, explicitly, that a grade on an assignment is not a verdict on their overall performance, their potential, or their worth as a person--but just a measure of how close they are to mastering a single discrete task.

I do a little more of this now than I used to, but frankly, I wish someone had told me these things in college. I wasn't taught poetry well. I wasn't told what component skills went into writing an essay. And after a year or so I assumed I'd just found my level in the B+/A- range: that's just who I was and how smart I was, and it probably wasn't going to change.

The thing is, as a teacher, you never know who most needs a word of encouragement or affirmation. You don't know each student's background, you don't know their mental state. And if every little helps. . . well, it's easy enough to offer.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ars longa, legere brevis*

With a couple of weeks of breathing room between deadlines, I've decided to turn my energies to the stack of academic books I purchased at conferences over the past year. They're all in my subfield, but none is urgently related to anything I'm working on, so this has the benefit of feeling both virtuous (hey, I'm working! This is totally work!) and a bit decadent (I'm reading for fun! I don't have to read any of this!). So far I've finished two of your basic 200-page monographs and started a third, and I'm partway through a 600-page brick of a book, which I decided to tackle a chapter a day. It's been lovely. Even more lovely is that many of these books are by friends or friendly acquaintances.

But the fact that I know some of these authors and that I just published my own book has made me reflect uncomfortably on how I read. As I've mentioned before, a lot of my scholarly reading these days gets done in a search-and-destroy, slash-and-burn kind of way: I power through a book in a day or two, extracting the gist and the ideas most useful for my own work, skimming the chapters on less-relevant topics, and then moving on to the next one. It's like bolting a meal rather than savoring it: it gets the job done, energy- and nutrition-wise, but it doesn't do the food or the cook justice.

That's not quite how I'm reading these books--there's no point in rushing through books I don't urgently need to read in the first place--but it would be incorrect to say that I'm reading them as slowly or as carefully as they deserve. I'm reading them moderately briskly, with time to linger over cool things here and there, but with the expectation that I'll be coming back to the best ones in the future and don't need to digest everything now.

That's true enough; a good book is a long-term resource, which is why I buy so many. But the fact that I spent ten years writing my own 200-page monograph nags at me when I buzz through someone else's over just a day or two. If if I needed anything to make me feel even more keenly the triviality, the disposabilty of my own work, it's how speedily I read someone else's.

* I know! The bad Latin, it burns.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pardoner syndrome

Academics and other high-achievers are familiar with "imposter syndrome": the conviction that one doesn't really deserve to be where one is (and sooner or later will be found out). A lot has been written about this phenomenon and its problems--and occasionally its unexpected upsides. Imposter syndrome may keep someone from fully recognizing her own strengths, acting authoritatively, or taking risks. On the other hand, it can sometimes act as a spur to excellence (inspiring her to become the person others believe she already is) or serve as a healthy check on arrogance.

I'm interested, though, in the more vicious sibling of imposter syndrome, which I call "pardoner syndrome." A long time ago, I had a professor whose reading of Chaucer's Pardoner stuck with me. The Pardoner, of course, is the guy who sells pardons--years off your time in purgatory--and other weird miracles associated with the religious relics he carries around with him. In the course of his prologue and tale, Chaucer's Pardoner tells all the other pilgrims what a stupendous charlatan he is and how he goes from town to town, fooling the rubes with his fake relics (pigs' bones instead of saints' bones; a magic mitten) and sermons that prick their guilty consciences until they fill his purse with gold.

It's a mesmerizing performance. Then, at the end of it all, the Pardoner invites his fellow pilgrims to come up and buy his pardons and kiss his relics. The outraged Host tells the Pardoner he's gonna make him kiss his relics (if you know what I mean!), and is only barely prevented from beating the Pardoner up.

A question readers often ask is, why the fuck does the Pardoner do this? Why, after letting his audience in on all his tricks, does he then treat them like just another bunch of dupes?

My Chaucer professor argued that the Pardoner is in the theological condition of despair--he knows the way to salvation but believes he's too wicked for God to forgive--and that although he's contemptuous of his listeners, his whole performance is one of self-loathing. On some level, he wants his audience to see through him. If he can fool them, great: he'll feel briefly superior and briefly better about himself (and he'll keep raking in the cash). But what he's actually looking for is someone to thrash his ass.

I'm not a Chaucerian so I don't know if this is an eccentric reading or a common one, but it strikes me as having real psychological truth behind it. If it's not what Chaucer intended with his character, it's still a recognizable phenomenon in the world. If an imposter complex involves, let's say, believing that you were an admissions mistake at your fancy college and fearing being found out, a pardoner complex involves repressing the full knowledge of that fear and transforming it into arrogance. So maybe you half-ass all your schoolwork and act like a dick to your peers and professors, as if daring them to call your bluff and fail you (as you secretly believe you deserve).

The pardoner is someone who half buys his own bullshit--and who desperately needs for others to buy it--but who's just barely holding things together. Rather than doing something to help compensate for his anxieties and insecurities, he decompensates by underpreparing, being a jerk, picking fights, as if to force his own worst outcome. We talk about criminals who "want" to get caught, for example, or certain emotionally abusive partners whose own self-loathing means they're both desperate for love and contemptuous of anyone who thinks they deserve it.

I'm not sure I've ever seen pardoner syndrome in action in the workplace, though I'm sure it exists. Actual frauds and con men are probably more often sociopaths than victims of pardoner syndrome (and from the outside it can be hard to tell the difference between pardoner syndrome and blazingly clueless overconfidence), but there must be people who, for example, go up for a promotion with an embarrassing lack of credentials, or give a major presentation before a client while woefully underprepared, who fall into the category of half-seeking their own comeuppance.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Many years ago I had a terrific student. It was my first semester of college teaching and I got attached. We remained friendly after the class ended, but we didn't keep in touch after she graduated.

One idle evening, several years later, I ran a web search on her. I found her instantly: a year or two earlier she'd made all the papers in the city in which she was then living--and the campus newspaper at the institution she was then attending--for a truly bizarre incident. I won't detail it except to say that if it even crossed your mind that someone might do this thing, it would be as a fraternity prank. A really stupid, totally illegal fraternity prank.

Anyway, the story was that she'd been heading home from a university reception when her one or two drinks interacted badly with some painkillers she was on for a sports injury, and she spontaneously did this wacko thing (of which she has no memory).

By the time I read the account, there had been a hearing at which she'd been sentenced to community service; luckily, no one had gotten hurt and there had been no property damage, and since she had a totally clean record and dozens of people had testified that her behavior was inconsistent with anything she'd ever done in her entire life, the judge was lenient. Still, it was All. Over. The. Internet.

Ouch! I thought, reading it, and quickly closed my browser. I was glad she'd gotten off lightly, but very sorry this was my first encounter with her later life. I still hoped she'd go on to great things, but for whatever reason it never occurred to me to Google her again.

Until today.

Thinking she was probably in the field for which she'd been working on a graduate degree, I plugged in her first and last name and the name of the school where the incident had occurred. I figured I'd turn up a workplace bio.

And. . . sure enough! A bio! The first link! I clicked on it and found a very thorough two-paragraph biography. I was happy that it suggested she was doing well.

But something about the bio seemed wrong--it didn't read like the kind of thing an employer would put up. I noticed the site was run by WordPress and figured it must be a personal blog, so I clicked "home." But that was it: there was only an "about" page. No blog. Then I looked closer at the URL: it was her first and last name plus the name of her graduate school (e.g., Weird! Why would she identify herself that way? Then I went back to the full roster of Google hits and saw that there was a, a, and on and on and on for a couple of pages of hits.

The bios vary slightly in their wording, so the casual observer might not immediately realize that they're serving the same purpose--that purpose being to hide, or at least help neutralize, the effect of all those older links about her, uh, youthful escapade.

I don't blame her for this; everyone deserves to be able to live down a bad decision or two. But it's still an eerie thing to encounter when looking for a real trace of a real person--dummy site after dummy site after dummy site.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Going My Way?

The parish that Cosimo and I have been attending in Punchline Rustbelt City feels like a bizarro throwback to the kind of American Catholicism I know only from books and movies. It's not the church itself, though it's a handsome structure with an interior reminiscent of a Gilded Age train station. (Google tells me this is because it's actually built from the pieces of a bunch of nineteenth-century banks and hotels.) Neither is it the congregation, though a big, multigenerational crowd packs the pews every Sunday.

No, it's the fact that there's a whole clubhouse of priests in the rectory. In addition to the white-haired sixty-something pastor (and the two permanent deacons), we have a goofy hipster priest in his early thirties and a jocky twentysomething seminarian. And they have a great rapport with each other and with the congregation. Remember Going My Way? It's like that, but with three Bing Crosbys: warm, personable guys who talk sports and dole out high-fives and fist-bumps to the kids.

(The original Father What-a-Waste)

Last week we were told that the two younger men had concluded their rotations and would be moving to new parishes. . . but that in a couple of months we'd be getting another newly-ordained priest, and another seminarian, and a third young priest from abroad. Oh, and an 18-year-old member of the congregation had just entered the seminary, so we should all pray for him.

Dudes, it's like it's 1950 up in here.

Except, actually, it's not, and thank goodness: the parish, like the neighborhood around it, is thoroughly integrated, including a number of interracial families. There are women and girls in the sanctuary. And though it's dressier than our home parish--it's easy to spot men in suits and the occasional be-hatted woman--people also show up in sweatshirts and sports jerseys. No one bats an eye either way.

If this is a glimpse of the future of the Church, I'm all for it. (Though for my next course, please, I'd love some female ordination.)