• April 17, 2014

Handling an Insulting Remark

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Dinah"): I'm a graduate student in a literature seminar taught by "Professor Hades," who is male, very old, and very old school. Recently we read a famous novel in which a woman is raped and brutalized. As a female, I find the idea of such a violation to be horrifying. As an aspiring scholar, I can recognize how the topic might raise certain theoretical issues that would be interesting. But my gut reaction is still disgust.

So you'll imagine my shock when, in class, Professor Hades referred numerous times to the rape victim as a "slut." A few of the male students chimed in that she seemed to be "begging for it," and that rape was a means of her releasing previously "frustrated urges." I know that text is just text, and that the characters in a novel aren't real—but I'm pretty sure it's never OK to talk about any woman like that.

How do I handle that kind of blatant misogyny when I come across it?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is dismayed to learn that bullies and misogynists still thrive in some academic venues. She does not object to teaching or reading about violent or evil events. The Hebrew Bible, for instance, is full of blood and bigotry (as in the treatment of Dinah in Genesis 34). But Ms. Mentor is appalled when teachers—who should be models for thinking clearly and ethically—see nothing wrong with blaming the victim and laughing at pain.

Yes, "text is just text," and generations of scholars have tried to pry "serious readers" away from caring deeply about plots or characters. The Modern Language Association was founded by philologists, not by lovers of literature. There were the New Critics, looking at "the text itself" and doing intellectual gyrations to show that a poem is (or is not) unified. Some critics have found the Oedipus complex everywhere. Others have found complicity with social evils that need to be rooted out by literary criticism.

Critical theorists have also derided "the text" as "unstable" and "stammering." Some have denied that there's a book being discussed at all ("Is there a text in this class?"). And some have also refused to accept that there's a flesh-and-blood writer who produced the book ("the death of the author").

What's consistent, though, is the belief that discussing characters and their motives—should Elizabeth marry Darcy?—is somehow uncouth, lower class, and unworthy of the august precincts of the seminar room. Generations of female readers have suffered with Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke, but they were not supposed to say so in class. (If you, dear reader, recognize those names sans Googling, e-mail Ms. Mentor for extra credit.)

And so a kind of abstract and, yes, patriarchal view of literature reigns. The dispassionate critic rules. Don't ask the ordinary moral or ethical questions that you might ask about a real person.

Don't—heaven forfend—expect literature to give you meaning and pleasure. When an enthusiastic new graduate student told "Professor Eugene" that she loved to read, he looked down his nose and said, "You think literature is pretty." (She dropped out and teaches reading to children.)

If there's a taboo on making meaning, then it's difficult to raise the questions you want to about a text's treatment of women (or people of color, gays, people with disabilities, or older people). You risk being exposed as—gasp—someone who feels. (Next you'll cry or bleed. There's no stopping you.)

When Professor Hades and his sycophants started their bonding ritual in your seminar, you could of course have jumped up and shouted, "You ignorant pigs! You perverts! You spawn of Satan!" That would have been very satisfying (Ms. Mentor glows at the thought), but it would just turn the group against you.

To change people's behavior, one needs a different set of rules and expectations. Different rules may not change people's hearts, but they will make people act with civility. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, in so many words, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; religion and education will have to do that. But if it keeps him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also."

Thinking about lynching is also a start. Ms. Mentor wonders if, in a graduate seminar, a professor and students reading about a lynching would laugh and feel free to say, "That dude was asking for it."

Ms. Mentor thinks not, and so what you have is an interesting case in scholarly inquiry. She suggests you consider Professor Hades and your classmates as subjects, and find out how they came to think as they do. You are a graduate student, and you want to know how scholars operate.

You can ask Professor Hades, for instance, to define his terms. What does he mean by "slut?" What, historically, does the term mean in literary discourse? (It used to mean, in fact, a sloppy housekeeper—as did "slattern." We live in oversexed times.) What other sluts are there in the books (or texts) we're reading in this course?

You needn't be combative or satirical in asking these questions. Ask them earnestly, as a scholar—because you are seeking information, and that is your right as a student. Adopt, if need be, the persona of a naïve inquirer. Say "I wonder," rather than "How can you ... ?"

If fellow students claim that the female character was "begging for it," ask them to show you the passages in the text where she was begging. Scholars find their evidence in words. If need be, keep saying, "I just want to understand, for my future growth as a scholar."

You may discover you have an ally in your questioning (aside from the other women in the course). Often a sensitive young man, troubled by the hostile environment, will also start wondering aloud.

Will Professor Hades get angry? Possibly, but the text—your text, what you're saying—is not hostile. Your text is a series of scholarly inquiries. Be respectful, but persistent. You'll get information of some kind.

You may have no obvious impact on Professor Hades now, but you may change his future behavior. "Professor Muggeridge," a noted Victorian scholar, had a habit of commenting on George Eliot's "horse face" and neighing at his own wit. But one day, when the class moved on to Thomas Hardy, a student asked the professor to rate Hardy's appearance. Other students continued to ask about other Victorian figures: comely or homely? Professor Muggeridge never again talked about female writers and their looks.

But your Professor Hades, you say, is very old, as well as old school. Ms. Mentor does not forgive him for his age. Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, the stunning book that defined rape as violence, not sexual pleasure, was published in 1975. Ms. Mentor believes that those who cannot learn, should not be teaching.

Teach your teacher well.

Question: Do I have to be chronologically gifted (old) to be a fogy in academe, or is it a matter of having a gloomy, inward-turning spirit and a habit of lambasting the young?

Answer: Gloomy.

Sage readers: As we slog toward the holidays, Ms. Mentor invites gift suggestions for academics. Long ago, one gave a scholar something old (such as a scrap of papyrus signed by a minor pharaoh) and something new (a flashy quill pen). What is proper in our barbarous times? Ms. Mentor invites you to propose gifts for yourself, for your allies, for your tormentors, and for your legislators.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always masked. Your colleagues will never know that you suggested that deliciously shocking holiday gift.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press, soon to be available as an e-book.). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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