Going to the Well

(A way to really embarrass your child!)

At the end of Fernando de Rojas’ enduringly pertinent tragicomedy, La Celestina (various versions; 1499-1502), the father, Pleberio, grapples with his daughter’s tragic fall to death.  Pleberio says to his wife, “¡Ay, ay, noble mujer!  Nuestro gozo en el pozo, nuestro bien todo es perdido.  ¡No queramos más vivir!” (rough translation: “Oh, oh, noble wife of mine!  Our greatest joy drowned (in the well), our life and well-being lost. We cannot go on living.”).  He goes on to say, “¡Oh amigos y señores, ayudadme a sentir mi pena! (roughly: “Oh, friends and kind sirs, help me stand this grief!”), followed soon thereafter by, “Oh duro corazón de padre” (“Oh, father’s hardened heart”).  The tragicomedy, so full of hilarious irony and heartbreaking loss, features the well as the deep and stony resting place of Pleberio and Alisa’s daughter and of the couple’s equanimity.

This past weekend, I drove with our son, our first-born, nine hours north to take him to college.  Actually, he was headed to a community service program that would precede first-year orientation.  “Nuestro gozo en el pozo,” a line I have cried over in private and in class (those who are regular readers of this blog know that I fear not the public flow of tears), ran through my mind as my son snored sleepily at my side for the first two hours of the trip.  But I wasn’t thinking of the “well” as a stony resting place, but rather a place from which our son could draw bucket after bucket of thirst-quenching knowledge and surprising friendships and amazing adventures and a profound sense of self, all of which he could channel back towards the world in his own way.  Of course, I was thinking of “gozo” as joy, from rejoice, and of our son as an unmitigated, undefinable, undisputed joy of almost 19 years.

When Charlie was born, a poet friend of mine from Mexico City asked me how life had changed.  I remember being glad we were speaking in Spanish, which seemed to give me an expanded way to offer an answer.  I said, “El niño nos va enseñando a amar de maneras infinitas.  Me doy cuenta de lo infinitos que somos todos, de que el amor es matemático, es el infinito, es la infinidad” (rough translation: “Our child is teaching us to love in infinite ways.  I’m realizing that we are all infinite, that love is mathematical, that it is infinity itself.”)  I’m lucky my interlocutor was a poet—he was all in.  In a way, I think the birth of our second child was easier because we were already prepared for infinity, for more gozo.  Prepared, maybe, to figure out how you can be so thrilled for another human being’s next adventure and simultaneously devastated by their departure. The pozo, then, for this parent also evokes the stillness or stoniness of loss.

In the three days since our sloppy (on my part) and public goodbye, I have experienced many more emotions than I had anticipated. I have been delighted to have occasional communications with Charlie, who feels right at home in his new place.  On the home front, Charlie’s departure has felt ridiculously akin to my mother’s death of two years ago, and to the recent death of my husband’s mother.  I do not like admitting this.  This moment of great privilege should not encourage any grief or complaining on my part, I know this.  But it does.  Sobs emerge uneven and choking in the “I don’t believe this has happened” way, and I have to avoid casual acquaintances so they don’t have to comfort a relative stranger when they ask her a simple question.  (Yes, I had to pull over to the side of the highway on the car ride back; yes, my eyes keep welling up when friends and family ask how Pat, Susanne, and I are doing; yes, seeing an accidental fourth plate at the dinner table hits deep; and, yes, I can’t imagine my husband’s double loss, since he also taught Charlie for years.) Every part of Charlie’s next adventure seems fascinating, and I delight on his behalf.  I just didn’t expect any part of the experience to feel like death, to land us in the pozo.  The fourth plate, the empty room, the music stand, the piano bench, the ratty old sneakers.  They are all the well.

This lament is particularly silly when I consider how many times I will see Charlie over fall term, how social media makes him so present, how lucky I am to love him and his sister and dad so much.  But there you have it—the infinity of the ways in which we love, or just the infinity of love, translates as well to true lament.  We understand why Pleberio says, “Oh” more than a dozen times in his speech and why the speech seems to sport only exclamations and rhetorical questions, made all the more dramatic as they are framed by double exclamation points and double question marks in Spanish.  Sometimes you need another language to express the hyperbole you feel.

As we packed Charlie off, I gave him some advice (quite different from the one rather bald but well-meaning bit of advice my father gave me).  In the end, though, he does not need the advice, for I believe he already knows how to love infinitely.  May he fare well!

Lilla Again: Campus Politics

*A shorter version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor on The Chronicle of Higher Education site.

(The New York Times photograph of students protesting Mike Pence, May, 2017 Notre Dame graduation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/us/parents-students-summer.html?mcubz=3)&_r=0)

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long piece by Columbia University Humanities professor Mark Lilla.  This piece, “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism,” is adapted from Lilla’s recently published book, titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  As The Chronicle has done with other authors (*see this Gender Shrapnel post), here they have had the author write a “Chronicle Review” piece about his own book.  The timing of the publication of the piece, nine days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Full disclosure: I addressed Mark Lilla’s ideas in the Gender Shrapnel Blog back in November of 2016, soon after the election (another propitious moment to fan flames), when The New York Times ran Lilla’s piece, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  The November blog post I wrote takes issue with Lilla’s refusal to learn the lessons of the interdisciplinary programs he scorns.  His inability to recognize why “identity politics” is an exclusive and offensive term cripples his argument.  The term comes to life only when people who aren’t cis, white males start having a political voice. In the second paragraph of his piece in The Chronicle, Lilla writes, “All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation.”  This would have been a good moment for Lilla to make clear what he means by “all of us liberals.”  Who are “us liberals,” and what do we have in common?  How does the author define “liberalism” itself?

Lilla accuses 1980s liberals who espoused a “politics of identity” of “losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.”  I was in high school and college in the Reagan 80s, and, like many of my peers, I was concerned about and involved in protests of nuclear armament, apartheid—in South Africa and in the United States–, U.S. support of right-wing fascist dictatorships in Latin America, and the nation’s continued failure to support and elect women leaders of all backgrounds.  In other words, I did not feel “bound” to my nation because so many people were disenfranchised from participation in the voice and governance of the nation.

Lilla says, “What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.  This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.”  My sense of this argument is that Lilla is encouraging a seemingly all-embracing left (would that it were more so) to silence its recognition of the existence of different groups (often formed from a shared group identity; often formed in response to visible and invisible systems of oppression) so as not to galvanize the forces of the right, so as not to unleash the dangerous forces of the right.  Is this silence, or this inaction, not just another form of oppression, in this case, as posited by Lilla, an oppression of the left that he recommends being imposed by the left?  Lilla says that the only way to “meaningfully assist them” (with “them” being “minorities”; ah, the haughtiness of this tone, the distance established) is “to win elections.”  Yes, absolutely, winning elections is essential, of course.  But multi-pronged approaches to problems, approaches that draw upon a variety of people’s different strengths, also work.  I believe the function of higher education is to develop this variety of skills, analytical approaches, and ability to collaborate so that our students become citizens who are interested in the world and able to effect change no matter where they land.  Also significant is our need to understand affective approaches to the polis—understanding our changing selves, engaging in dialogue with many others, and working together towards viable solutions.  I envision Venn diagrams of groups that often exist apart but certainly find interlocking areas of affinity, agreement, and action.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students,” published in the August 24, 2017, edition of The Chronicle, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students.  While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.  I would like to add to Jones’ examples.  At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm.  Many don’t assume one, blanket national identity, but rather work to understand the many groups that make up the United States and the positive and negative effects our nation’s leaders have had on the world.  Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with: “A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.”  The tongue-in-cheek tone both contradicts Lilla’s later criticism of “casting an ironic eye” towards democratic politics and caricaturizes real people who experience actual life struggles.  In addition, Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.”  The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live.  (See last week’s post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)  Again, Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns.  The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of other ways to exist, teach, and advise in the higher education setting.  Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

I hope a collective sigh takes hold of The Chronicle’s audience when it reads Lilla’s sudden decision to incorporate a “she” in his article.  When he asks readers to “imagine a young student entering such an environment today,” the young student is a “she,” and the old master paternalistically mocks the courses the student chooses to take, the groups she chooses to join, the ways in which she will choose to be labeled a “victim.”  The long screed against this fictional “she” includes this assertion: “If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it.”  Is Trump “an anonymous force of power?”  Are Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell “anonymous forces of power?” Is Dylann Roof an “anonymous force of “power”?  How about Brock Turner?  I believe we know the names and faces of those who use power—whether manifested through elected office or violence, or both—for their own gain, and I don’t think we could say that Heather Heyer, for example, chose to withdraw from democratic politics and cast an ironic eye on it.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.  In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

I argue that we are not imposing an identity-based education, but that neither are we ignoring that individual and group identities exist and enjoy different levels of voice, visibility, and power, in our curricula, on our campuses, in our political realm.  To interpret contemporary campus politics with nuance, we have to examine our course offerings (have the white dudes really been taken over across the curriculum?), club offerings (I don’t think fraternities have disappeared, have they?), and our towns (real people live and work in these towns; real people struggle in these towns).  Traditional power dynamics still prevail, and they seem both unstudied and reinforced in Lilla’s work.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (3-31-17) that Brandon E. Banks, a former Vanderbilt University student and football player charged in a rape case from June, 2013, has spoken at several universities to student-athletes about sexual assault.  This subsequent Chronicle piece [4-2-17], titled “Victim in Vanderbilt Rape Case is Shocked That a Suspect Is Speaking on Campuses,” says that at least five universities have hosted Banks. Banks has visited these campuses in conjunction with Tyrone White, who is described in the earlier Chronicle piece as “a motivational speaker and former coach who organizes speaking events.”

White’s website underscores the main theme of “winning in life.” In addition, the website bills one of White’s speaking programs with the headline, “Say ‘NO!’ to Hook-Up Drama: Skills to wisely navigate intimate relationships.”  One of the bulleted points on the side states that students will learn “how to get appropriate help if the ‘drama’ becomes violent.” The use of “drama” as a term for sexual assault or sexual violence is deeply problematic, as is the inclusion of a speaker who is currently facing sexual assault charges.  I’m not saying that there isn’t something to learn about these situations and quite possibly from these individuals, but I am saying that the programming seems more than insensitive to victims’ rights in general and very specifically to the young woman who is alleged to have been the victim of “multiple counts of aggravated rape and other charges” (Chronicle, 3-31-17).

It wasn’t until this tour, targeted at student-athletes (described just as “athletes” in the 3-31-17 Chronicle piece), brought White and Banks to Louisiana State University that members of a university community raised objections.  The e-mail invitation to the event reportedly featured Banks’ imminent sentencing as a reason to attend the talk.  This seems to exploit both alleged perpetrator and victim.  The 3-31 Chronicle piece appropriately signals that the e-mail invitation assured potential attendees that the session would be over before the start of the NCAA national championship game for men’s basketball.  (You can learn about sexual assault, guys, but we won’t take up too much of your valuable time.)

According to the Chronicle, Tyrone White billed Brandon Banks as “not [the victim’s] hero” and highlighted the increased difficulties in Banks’s life since the incident.  Faculty at LSU perceived this whole invitation as “a tone-deaf mistake by the athletics department” (Chronicle, 3-31-17).  This is certainly true, but the invitation is more than just tone-deaf.  It reveals a continued desire to focus on the alleged perpetrator’s changed life, instead of that of the victim’s, to give the alleged perpetrator a microphone and public mode of reconciliation at the cost of the victim, and to reinforce old gender scripts that cast woman as victim and man as her savior.  Let me put it bluntly: Imagine you were raped by four men, some of whom photographed the assaults, and then you saw reputable universities inviting one of those men, his sentencing for felony charges imminent, to share his wisdom about sexual assault cases.  I believe you would be retraumatized by the original incident and the lightness with which it was considered by several universities (don’t worry—you’ll make it on time to the Final Four, folks!).  I believe you might think you might have a little more to offer in the realm of sexual assault prevention training.

The Chronicle (3-31-17) reports that faculty members were concerned about the following related issues: the University was booking an “untutored, ungraduated athlete who is on the brink of standing trial for a felony”; the University didn’t go to the root of the problem; the presentation seemed to lack scholarly grounding; faculty members would like more collaboration on these issues between athletics and academics.  These faculty concerns, echoed by many LSU students, are valid and should be considered an important part of prevention programs.  The “hero” and “winning” rhetoric touted by White reinforces hypermasculinist behaviors and casts women as victims.

Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, issued a statement on 3-14-17 that called his “team” to solve the problems of “disrespecting women by crude jokes, wisecracks, sexual harassment, and in its worst manifestations, sexual assault—a serious violent crime.”  Richardson says that “in teams, there are no bystanders.  We are all in.”  While on the face of it, these might seem like noble or appropriate words, they again reinforce gender scripts (the “respect” model, or the woman-on-the-pedestal model).  More importantly, these words are accompanied by a fierce us-versus-them rhetoric, exemplified in these statements: “We definitely don’t allow anybody to disrespect another teammate—we close ranks and protect”; “…to remain the world’s most powerful Navy we must be 100% focused on staying ahead of our competition…”; “There is no room in our Navy for toxic behavior.  It makes us weaker, and cedes advantage to the enemy.”  The “fighting words” model of sexual assault prevention might not be the best way to get people talking about actual violence.  In addition, as I say throughout Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, in the current climate, statements that invoke zero-tolerance policies tend to be full of bluster and bravado and hypocrisy.  We continue to tolerate sexual discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and assault—all the time.

In fact, these issues and their emphasis on bystander intervention underscore some of the shortcomings of current approaches to sexual assault prevention.  Bystander intervention is of fundamental importance, but it cannot be the only approach to solving the problem of sexual violence on campuses.  Some programs based on bystander intervention ignore root causes of gender-based violence and neglect to link sexual assault to patterns of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

Women’s and gender studies scholars and students have a lot to offer to organizations seeking to provide sexual assault prevention training, staring with undoing gender binaries and age-old gender scripts.  For example, see the AAUW’s tool kit for sexual assault prevention.