It’s been a rough few weeks moving to a different job, meeting new people, learning a new cultural system (otherwise called a college or university), figuring out where things are, setting my codes for the phone, printer, scanner/copy machine. My new colleague, Sara, has been wonderful—we started this year together and we have pretty much vowed that this will be a place we really like because we are just too damn old to be doing all this re-locating and starting all over again. Despite the fatigue, I am quite happy, value my new colleagues, and just love the students who I get to teach.
The very first assignment for the semester was pretty low-key: write me a letter with comments about the website, syllabus, and general feelings. For my 101 class, I asked students to do a “Mic Check”, an assignment inspired by Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out”. For my 201 students, I asked students to connect their work in the previous semester of 101 to the new course in 201, an assignment inspired by Erykah Badu’s “& On.” These assignments were created as eTexts on the course website with the music playing in the background. I was so pleasantly surprised at how self-reflective and brutally honest my students were. They were critical of the things they believe they do well in their writing and writing processes AND what they need to work on. It was a wonderful reminder just how much of a vital skill this is, one that not many folk have. It was an important reminder to me to fuse this kind of thing into the semester all along because, like I just said, it is a skill not many possess.
Maybe this is an academic/professor thing but I am often perplexed by self-aggrandizing and conceited college faculty. I remember when I first started on the tenure track and was surrounded by folk who thought their scholarship was the most impressive and deepest thing ever. It was perplexing because these folk weren’t the least bit interesting to me, much less offering some kind of new Kuhnian shift to the world. It was like these folk had no sense of themselves, what they did well and what they didn’t do well. It became very dangerous because you could end up working on a project/committee with someone who claimed an expertise on the subject at hand, only to find out they didn’t know/do jack! The folk who I actually thought were brilliant scholars and teachers NEVER spoke of themselves, name-dropped their famous advisors, patted themselves on the back for the comp exams they took 10+ years ago, quoted from their unpublished/old dissertations, or sent emails/tweets announcing the brilliance of their newest publications/talks! They were somewhere writing, organizing, working with students, and actually BEING brilliant, not talkin about themselves. The lack of self-awareness could even extend beyond scholarship. I remember once talking with a colleague who had spent hours shopping, picking an outfit, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for a campus event because she needed/wanted to aesthetically compete with one of the women in the program. Here’s the thing: the woman who was the mark is a former model with a wardrobe/collection of labels rivaling Michelle Obama’s… and also one of the nicest people around (I knew her outside of the campus from common friends). She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen and yet she doesn’t think of herself this way nor is she the type to compete with women for men’s attention. Now here’s the real twisted part. The woman who saw HERSELF in competition is a dead-ringer for an Italian Greyhound dog. Yes, I know I am being triflin’ and mean, but I just gotta call it like I see it. DEAAAAAD-RINGER! I realize that people love greyhound dogs and I mean them no offense; greyhounds do seem quite unique but you gotta admit they are some scraggly, weird-looking things. The point remains: if you look like a greyhound dog on your best day, what makes you think you are a shining star next to one of the most beautiful women in the world? Really, how does someone anoint themselves as Miss Universe when in actuality they could be racing around a dog-track chasing a fake rabbit? Maybe these folk just need some black friends because ain’t no way I could even walk out the door so falsely convinced of my superflyness without my peoples setting me straight real fast (my family talks about you BAD to your face for much LESS than the examples I have offered). Just this summer, I tried to purchase some $8.99 finger nail polish and the 19-year-old black male sales clerk assured me that it made no sense to spend THAT much money for a color that had NO chance of looking good on my toes. I put it back and saved myself that 10 dollars. When black folk offer constructive feedback, they really CONSTRUCT! My toes can’t even make it out the stores in my neighborhood without some real honesty. Academics don’t choose their profession because of their good looks so this kind of vanity is a REAL strange and misplaced thing anyway. If you think this greyhound-dog-woman had an inaccurate sense of something as irrelevant and materialistic as physical beauty, well, honeychile, you need only imagine how delusional and impressed she was with something serious like her scholarship. If women get away with these levels of fantasy, conceit, and delusion, imagine what men in such patriarchal structures do. In fact, at every “third-tier” university where I worked/interviewed, male administrators stayed proclaiming the university’s similarity to the University of Illinois. I have been to UI campuses: there are NO similarities. The last time I saw such grand delusions of grandeur was when I lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a summer in my 20s. This is why self-reflection is important: if you are convinced you are the BOMB, then you don’t ever look deeply at yourself, at what you are doing, at who you are, and why you are making the decisions you are making. You just walk around proclaiming to be one thing when you are another altogether and stay STUCK on stupid forever.
Maybe it’s because they are students and they are getting a grade. Maybe it’s the concrete goal of getting an A in the class and making a life for one self via a college degree. Or maybe it’s because they are working class people trying to survive in a place like New York City at a public university and so are not cocooned in the kind of privilege, elitism, and stupidity that defines mediocrity and sub-mediocrity as the hallmark of greatness. I don’t know. I just know that my students get it. There are no greyhounds here.