Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Empathy and What We Do ... Together


Hello ITM readers! I'm just on my way to the BABEL symposium in NYC (#cla2013) by way of Oceanic New York (#ony2013)—of course more about this on ITM after this weekend. But first, in this posting, I'd like to quickly comment on a few buzzworthy online items that might at first seem unrelated—but are actually intertwined by an important common thread.

On Contingency: Earlier this month, MARY KATE returned to ITM with this thoughtful blog posting entitled “On Contingency.” In a large part “giving props” to her medievalist community during her time teaching at Yale, Mary Kate offers one positive example of professional experience as an adjunct, and she illustrates the importance of working in an environment in which one is valued as a peer and well supported on all fronts (emotionally, intellectually, and materially). I found it so striking that soon after Mary Kate’s posting, this truly devastating “counterpoint” began to circulate regarding the experience of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a dedicated teacher and adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University for 25 years (see “Death of an adjunct” HERE). This story has been picked up and re-circulated by the NPR, Huffington Post, CNN, BuzzFeed (and I’m sure many other outlets) generating righteous outrage—and sincere discussions about the adjunctification of higher education continue to reverberate online and in the corridors. The inherent pathos in this story of the suffering of Margaret Mary Vojtko is not without a certain literary (almost hagiographical) tinge: in some respects she becomes a kind of modern-day “martyr” for the case against our profession’s increasing dependence upon (or even exploitation of) contingent faculty. This concern about the adjunctifation of higher education is something we've been thinking about quite a lot on ITM: Jeffrey and Eileen, most noticeably, have attended to issues relating to what Jeffrey has called the “precariat”; and see the comments on Mary Kate’s posting by Ben Tilghman and Myra Seaman on their own experiences as adjuncts and the need to find a “home” as a scholar, teacher, and fully valued peer. 

On a related note, read Rebecca Schuman’s excellent posting on “Horrible Job-Market Platitudes and How to Retire Them,” which provides some tips for mentors and job placement officers on avoiding well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive words of “comfort” for people who haven't landed tenure-track positions. Many of us who act as academic mentors are products of a culture that still codes non-TT status itself as “failure” and this posting goes one step toward changing some of these attitudes and sentiments.

Declasse Academics: You may have seen this posting making the rounds over the past week on "declasse" academics, a link I first saw posted by KARL on Facebook (see the link by @WernherzBear HERE). In this list, this blogger reveals a certain implicit assumption that all academics come from a privileged (and Northeastern US) background. I feel many items on this list don't quite apply to people of color and/or folks who grew up outside of the US, but what this posting suggests is that unstated social codes (i.e., the implicit norms of WASP culture) still underpin many aspects of (North American) academia. Everyday interactions can make even TT-faculty “insiders” feel like perpetual “outsiders,” people who don’t “belong.” There are many ways in which people can feel “othered” in the profession beyond class of course (gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability), but the posting draws attention to something we can be so reluctant to discuss openly.

Serious Literature (No Women or Chinese): This is a much newer story (really only “broke” yesterday and last night). I’m closely following the ongoing reaction to a recent interview with David Gilmour—an author and apparent literature instructor who (now notoriously) reveals he doesn’t “love” literature by women or by “Chinese” (?!) and is instead most invested in teaching works by “serious, heterosexual guys”—and the apology/interview making up for the original interview didn’t help matters. I’m not linking to the original interview or follow-up here, but you can see that the posting has swiftly generated both online rage and mockery, with this spot-on parody HERE and response HERE, an awesome open letter by Anne Thérault HERE, and a devastating point-by-point takedown HERE. The comments on the Facebook event page for Serious Heterosexual Guys For Serious Literary Scholarship (created by Miriam No, on twitter @imposterism) are pure COMEDY GOLD (and track #SeriousReads and #GilmourReadMore on twitter RIGHT NOW for the ongoing University of Toronto community response).

On Empathy

So what ties together all of these items? In his very insightful response to the Gilmour story, early modern literature professor Holger Syme offers these remarks on the importance of empathy:
Good teaching requires empathy — an effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is not just what research means, and why research is necessary, it’s what reading is. 
This statement beautifully showcases how empathy is not only the key to good teaching but also a feature of research and scholarship, including (as is the case in medieval studies) people who seek to understand a culture or worldview that is distant and “alien” to one's own. I would extend things to say that empathy is, of course, a key part of human interaction in general -- which includes one's treatment of students, mentees, and coworkers of all kinds (regardless of rank, social affiliations, or employment status).

I will end by stating why I believe that online communities like the ones cultivated here at ITM and the BABEL Working Group—and other forms of social media—are so very important. In a lot of cases, being a medievalist means being “the only medievalist in the village” (so to speak), and in these instances many turn to online venues a way to stay engaged with a broader community of people who share their scholarly and intellectual interests. Moreover, the field-specific isolation one might feel as a medievalist can certainly be compounded and complicated by so many other factors (most noticeably, contingent status). What I hope ITM and BABEL can continue to foster is this genuine sense of community and support for people who might physically be far apart, and I hope (collectively) we can create non-hierarchical forms of community that not only think beyond discrete academic disciplines but also break open the very idea of “the university” and the world that surrounds and sustains it.


Eileen Joy said...

Hear hear.

Robert Stanton said...

Thanks for this excellent olio of posts and issues. You and ITM readers may be interested in Peter Buchanan's piece, which combines the David Gilmour and adjunct faculty issues:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

How could it be that I never commented on this, Jonathan? I returned to it in flight from Seattle to DCA and I want to say, thank you. Much of what you write was on my mind as I spoke with graduate students at a public university slowing defunding humanities endeavors and making their lives very difficult to maintain. I wish that university trustees and administrators were required to read this post.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Robert: It seems the David Gilmour discussions have subsided as of late (with a brief flurry after Alice Munro was the first Canadian author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature!). ... I've seen Peter Buchanan's post and understand where he's coming from, even if I do think (in the particular case of Gilmour) that there's a *big difference* between someone in his position and a socially and socially disadvantaged contingent instructor like Margaret Mary Vojtko. While perhaps Holger Syme might have overstated things a bit in his blog post in order to convey the idea that Gilmour as an individual didn't speak "for" the English department as a whole, I still would agree with the overall message of the posting and what he writes -- toward the end -- about empathy.

@Jeffrey: Haha, I'm just seeing your comment now! do hope your trip to Seattle went well, and thanks -- I'm glad to know that others appreciate this posting , and these issues are things that all of us -- faculty (of all kinds), grad students, administrators -- need to keep in mind.