"On Becoming Educated"
(page 4 of 6)
In 1997, Ph.D. in hand, I began my first academic job at a small
college: 850 students, all men, in a town of 15,000 in rural Indiana.
Wabash College prided itself on its maintenance of tradition. Men
comprised not only the entire student body but also most of the faculty
and almost the whole administrative structure.
Students asked, while I was sitting at my desk in my office, whose
secretary I was. Alumni at luncheons asked what a 'purty young thing'
like me was doing there. All-campus emails by drunk freshmen asked for
the best place on campus to beat their meat.
I taught there for ten years, the only tenure-line woman in my department
for the first nine. I earned tenure; I chaired my department. We hired
I also got to teach women's literature, including Latina literature,
and feminist theory to classrooms of thirty-five men at a time.
Farmboys and lawyers' sons took my classes. Some came with the
expressed intention of debunking feminism. Some wanted to know, when we
read the novels of Jean Rhys, why we had to read a book by a slut. Some
questioned women's right to vote. Yes. When I taught Gloria
Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, I was under no
illusion that its insights would be met with joy.
I value those voices, those questions, that red-state hostility,
because they taught me how to make feminism's insights relevant to
people outside a closed, snug room of agreement. I learned how to make
feminist theory, and critical race theory, and observations about class
privilege relevant, exciting, and even needful to people who had no
material reason to care. I learned diplomacy. I learned not to back
As academics, we can forget the urgency and hunger people have for
the knowledge we hold. We can forget that even those who claim to be
hostile may need what we offer to help them make sense of a complicated
Academics don't share a monolithic experience. Many of us are
adjuncts or lecturers, forced to piece together work with few benefits
and little security, while the fortunate percentage of us with
tenure-track positions have to hustle to build our vitas and merit files
as our institutions require. Either way, the thick busyness of our
lives can induce a sweet, privileged forgetfulness, a smug sense of how
worthwhile our work of "knowledge production" is. Over the years, I've
known many dedicated and creative teachers, eager to reach and engage
every student, yet I've also known many academics who view students as
an obstacle to their real work of research, or who see teaching as a
process of simply culling the best from the herd.
But I speak now as one of that herd. The herd is made up of smart,
desperate, and intellectually eager individuals—if they are met halfway,
if they are spoken to with respect and in language they can understand.
They have not been to Harvard, and if we make them feel stupid,
inadequate, and ashamed for not knowing its vocabularies and sharing its
assumptions, they will retreat. (My brother, living in a trailer with
friends and putting himself through college, dropped out after a year.)
If our concerns seem too abstract, effete, and irrelevant, they will
turn away in disgust.
Yet we need them. Their voices are vital. The academy—as we fondly,
misguidedly call it, as if it were some great, unified thing—is
lumbering along amidst eviscerating budget cuts, pressures to
corporatize, to streamline, to justify its existence to hostile
anti-intellectual factions and a skeptical public, to become purely
instrumental, a machine that grants job credentials to
twenty-two-year-olds so they can get on with their lives. In the face
of such intense and varied pressures, the academy must find ways to
preserve itself as a place for thought to flourish—yet everyone
needs to be invited to think. The discussion has to matter to everyone,
and everyone's voice must be heard.
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