Sunday, June 3, 2007

on academic snobbery: where are the true feminists and Hellenists?

Feminists and Hellenists should provide antidotes to academic snobbery. More on that in a moment. First, a true story about some personal moments.

This is my introduction to the attitudes and behaviors of intellectual superiority. In the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, all my professors happened to be thirty-something know-it-alls. Sure enough, they fostered critical thinking in me and, I suppose, in my classmates. But they also heightened my painful sensitivity to academic snobbery. In the course of the next five semesters, I couldn't help but notice how even the most experienced, tenured professors tended to retain (well beyond their thirties) this quality: they were all arrogant intellectuals. They made us students know we were mere undergraduates.

I remember one prof who, in class, actually attacked the identity of one student. As the student left crying, the teacher declared victory of one sort or another. (The victory, I found out later, was also, at least, the professor's own "victory" over the "identity," a personal identity rejected. Two of my friends at that university, struggling over the same identity, had taken their own lives that same semester. I myself shared--but not openly--the same personal identity, an identity I did not choose. The next year, another friend with the same identity--a friend from high school who I'd followed to the college--decided to drop out the last month of the last semester of the senior year, just as the parents arrived from overseas for graduation. Private coping with a profound identity was not something snobs, in the public academy, helped with. At least we were not entirely alone). In all my classes, I clearly remember, the instructors who were men treated very differently the students who were women (just because they were women). Many of my classmates who were women, some of them feminists, were starting to talk about the arrogant thought and actions of power of some of these professors. (My classmates never used that radical word "feminist" nor the other useful terms many undergraduates today find commonplace: "sexism," "misogyny," "deconstruction," "hermeneutic of suspicion," "meta-narratives," "cultural studies," and "post structuralism, post colonialism." The U.S. was, then, riding out our second wave of feminism--and we had not yet begun to whiff the postmodern air stirring at the time in France. And I was taking semester after semester of classical Greek, not yet connecting the importance of the Hellenistic roots either philologically or philosophically. I will explain what I mean here below). It's taken me decades, now, to get to the point where I can find antidotes to academic snobbery. I've gone in and out of my thirties; in and out of my own hypocrisy, my own arrogance of intellect; in and out of a semester of seminary to examine academically--spiritually?--my own angst with my personal identity, which I need not name here; through a master's degree in linguistics; through the coursework and qualifying exams of a Ph.D. in "English" focused on ancient Greek rhetoric and on feminist rhetorics; into life as a spouse, life as a parent; and into a score of years of work with ESL college students--those women and men truly on the outside of the academy in monolingual America. It's June 3, 2007, and now I'm (nearly) ready to suggest two antidotes to academic snobbery.

First, feminists should offer an antidote to academic snobbery. Humility and profundity are the hallmarks of the woman who gets looked down upon by men (just because she's a woman) and who is seen as lacking the capability of being as rational as men are (precisely because she's not a man). Modesty and emotional depth are hardly the characteristics of self aggrandizing rational(izing) snobs.

I could say lots more. But I couldn't write anything better than Nancy Mairs has written, sitting in a wheel chair "waist-high in the world," in a body she didn't choose. So I just recommend scholar Mair's Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer.

Second, Hellenists should give us another antidote to academic snobbery in twenty-first century America. I use the English word, should, here with all the ambiguous imperative-subjunctive glory we academic insiders give it. Some of you are demanding, then, that I say what I mean. Let me just warn you that, with the classic poetic feministic Greeks, I'm mainly going to play with language. (I may sound like a snob, at first. But I'll try to translate if you'll agree to try to read on and ask me questions, continue this dialogue: jkgayle at gmail dot com privately or comment here publicly.)

Helen (or Ἑλένη) is, after all, the beautiful beginning, middle, and end of Hellenism. She is a person whose personal identity--an identity she did not choose--divides and unifies. Hence, she is humble and profound. She did not choose, either, to be captured by Paris of Troy or recaptured by Menelaus or Theseus, or in epic legend by Homer and in rhetorical praise by Sappho and Gorgias and Isocrates. (I know this sounds like snobbish name dropping.) Here's how we should care: the stories of Helen are stories of a person; they are stories of beauty and of battle; they are stories of nation building; they are stories of people; they are stories of stories; they are stories of learning, of literature, of letters, of literacy, of orality. They are stories of personal identity, of passion, of profundity, of deep change in who I am and in who you are. They are stories of flawed deities and flawed humanity, stories of humility, stories of woman and man and of common humanity. They are stories that should bring down the arrogant academic.

We get our English word, academic, from their Hellenistic origins. Plato used the word to name his Ακαδήμεια, his Academy. It's related to that other word we Americans tend to love: δημοκρατία, or democracy. Both words, of course, share a common root: δῆμος, the Hellenistic word for common people, for the ones who tend to be on the outside. So where do arrogant academics in America get the right to their attitude and their behavior of power over the common sophomore? Hardly from the humble, profound Ακαδήμεια. (Just a quick aside on Plato. Feminist scholars in the history of Greek rhetoric, including Cheryl Glenn, Susan Jarratt, Lisa Ede, and Madeleine Henry, have begun to show us that just as we know of Socrates from Plato, we know of Aspasia from Plato. The former, Socrates, is the much more famous teacher of Plato, the inventor of the famous Socratic method. The latter, Aspasia, is hidden in the infamy of her membership in the ἡετερεία, or "heterae," the kept women of ancient Greek higher education. But now our more inclusive, more humble and profound histories of Hellenistic influences on our American academy show something new. Of course, Plato credits Aspasia for writing for and influencing male speech givers. And yet, Plato may also have known that the Socratic method really was something that Socrates received from Aspasia, from a profound, lowly woman in higher education.)

Will you now revisit with me the first sentence of Homer's Hellenistic Odyssey? I want us to look at, to listen to, a phrase from the fourth line of the first book (repeated in Book XIII, Line 90).

It reads and speaks (humbly and profoundly) this way:

πολλ πθεν λγεα ν κατ θυμν


many passions [Odysseus, our hero] suffered by heart

These are the very same sorts of words and ideas that Aristotle, in his Hellenistic Rhetoric, uses much later. In the opener of his treatise on rhetoric, for instance, Aristotle complains that all previous compilers of writings on the "skills of statement" have neglected central concepts. He talks about how common rhetoric is among all people, and he names πθος and θυμα (or passion and heart) as key concepts thoroughly mixed up with and mixed in with the common rhetoric and conversation of all people.

Here's our problem now in America, where the academy tends to be full of academic snobs.
We have divided the common from the ivory tower. That is, we move from Homer's opener to Aristotle's and think there's nothing common between them, and hardly anything here or there for the common person.

So, in our literate minds, we move from the heart of orality to literacy alone.
From epic poetry to didactic rhetoric.
From story to precept.
From passion suffered to "pathos" as merely one of three available means of persuasion competing somehow with "ethos" and the much preferred "logos."
From passion, then, to "pathos," and from "pathos," ultimately to "logos."
From profound heart to shallow "enthymeme," as a heady syllogism in formal rhetoric.
From Helen to Hellenism, from Hellenism to Greek, from classical Greek to American academic English.
From the common to the snobbish.
From either feminism to Hellenistic intellectualism or from intellectualism to feminism
(but never to feminism in Hellenism or Hellenism that is feministic).
From the personal identity of Hellenism, feminism
to the impersonal intellectualism of higher ivory tower education.

We can hardly fathom that anything we do in the university in this nation today, from our high vantage, should cause us to bear any responsibility for the suicide of two undergraduates and for the decision to drop out of college by a third. Will the higher education labels we put on ourselves and our students (whether "traditionalist" or "feminist" or something else) bring down our arrogance? Do we work against student passion and profundity? What can we learn from our dropouts? Are we too snobbish also to acknowledge the humble feminist and deep Hellenist roots of our academy?


MMcCracken said...

It has taken me two weeks to respond to your post. Not because I did not agree with what you were saying, but because I had not yet decided what to make of your articulate ruminations. That said, I'll begin by saying that I am about to marry a man who reminds me constantly that what I do is rife with elitism and snobbery. Whenever I start taking myself a little too seriously, he reminds me, ever so gently, that we are not saving lives, in the traditional sense. And, while I agree with him and while I appreciate how his comments keep me grounded, I think we are saving lives to some degree: by offering up opportuntities for contemplative thought.

But. Academic snobbery is just a way to justify what we do to outsiders. It is a byproduct of gatekeeping--away to mark the "us" and "them." What you experienced, particularly the attacking of identity, is what I associate with the old, white order--that time in academia when like was supported and unlike was rejected. When, much like the military, academia was a training ground for white me to learn how to compete and triumph in a battle of the minds.

I think the old order ways probably explain why the women were treated differently as well. I also think that academic feminists are trying to offer counterconversations for what it means to be an academic. But, changing the order takes time and it takes power--two things women in academia have been short of for many years. As more men come to associate and identify themselves as feminists, I think this will change, but the processes must begin in individual classrooms with individual instructors. Uniting together, offering a cohesive alternative experience, we can reach the *consumers* of higher education and, thus, change their expectations. But, we are always going to be rubbing up against convention, expectation, and, worst of all, tradition. So long as their are not adequate role models and images outside of the ivory tower, I think we'll be fighting a losing battle within the walls of higher education because I believe so many people see us as removed, distant, and irrelevant. Perhaps you are right, but pulling from the strenghts of collaboration, empathy, and identification, we can make connections between "us" and "them."

The most powerful question you ask calls us to consider what we can learn from those we are failing. When students don't *succeed* in higher education, what can we learn by talking with them about their experiences?

For me, we start by talking with them and giving their voices an outlet from day one. We start by making where they've been relevant to academic study. We help them see why understanding where they've been and where they want to go are essential elements to an education. We remind ourselves where we've been and reflect on how we've changed so that we might not get "above our raising" to borrow a phrase. Distancing ourselves from our roots only creates more distance. It allows for the exploitation of resources: both environmental and human.

J. K. Gayle said...

I know your academic work, M! and it's as humble as we all ought to be. it emphasizes "both environmental and human." Thanks for your comments as this blog was gathering steam. And congrats to you on the various good transitions in your life.