Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Three Compliments (Maybe Relevant for Gender & Teaching) [26 Jan. 2013]

     There must have been others — I'm sure people praised me at my retirement party, and I was given a civic award once — but I really only remember three compliments I've received. Two concern the one and only house I've owned, after I had it remodeled, and one has to do with teaching; two have some significance, but I'll start with one that's just kind of fun.

     After my father died and left me a bit of money, the government of the United States made me an offer I found difficult to refuse; they hinted strongly, though Federal tax policy, that I should use that money to buy a house and get a mortgage. I did buy the house but did little work on it for several years.

     Then I fell in love and got kind of engaged, and we evenutally had an argument with the condition of the house in the background but on the immediate occasion of the engagement ring: my fiancée-to-be's mother could have gotten us a knock-out emerald for far less than the cost of a small diamond, and — … well, anyway, she dumped me, with the lady's getting off one really effective parting shot, calling me cheap. I'm not cheap; I am tight. There's a difference. I will spend money; I just try not to waste money.

     So shortly thereafter I contacted an upscale general contractor who condescended to work on my house (he found it an interesting challenge), and I proceeded to move fairly far into debt — eventually selling off much of my record collection — but ending up with an elegant example of value for money, and I showed her.

     After finishing the remodeling, I returned to a practice in my teaching that was at the time encouraged by my university and, I think, a good idea: I had students over for pizza and a film in my collection that supplemented our course work.

     Anyway, a group of five or six frosh showed up right on time one night, and they walked in led by one lively freshman who looked around and said loudly, "Wow! This isn't what I expected at all. This is nice."

     Pause. Silence.

     Beat, beat (as they say in the script-writing biz).

     And then I rescued the poor schmuck with, "Uh, this wasn't what you expected for the house of the guy you met in Kroger's" — i.e., me — "wearing old jeans, a ratty sweatshirt, and needing a shave?"

     And he said, "Yeah, that's it!" And conversation resumed.

     I treasure that compliment: you can be really sure it was sincere.

     The second compliment on the house came from a woman with a group of colleagues who arrived early at my house re-warming party and had a chance to actually look around. She was a radical feminist, and I was interested in her opinion and remember (more or less) her words.

     She sat down firmly on the sofa, found it comfortable, and said, "I like what you've done. It's definitely a man's space, but one a woman can be comfortable in: masculine, but without the macho bullshit."

     That was a useful formula, and a sign of the times for gender relations.

     The first phase of Second Wave feminism had been integrationist, often with an ideal of androgyny. The next phase featured cultural feminism and some separatism. My colleague was on to a third way, where she could accept me as a man who wanted a masculine space and/but could pull it off "without the macho bullshit."

     Later in the 20th century — and into the present — we lost something when "macho" became an almost entirely positive word and pretty much a norm; something went wrong when many young Americans no longer spoke much of "macho bullshit" and were losing the term and concept "macho asshole." I liked it that she liked my "space" and that I could pull off masculine without macho bullshit, that I came across as a guy who welcomed women, not some macho asshole.

     The third compliment came in my teaching, but there, too, the setting is significant. I forget what the course was, but I clearly recall that we were in an inappropriate "space": a fairly large, steeply raked lecture hall, designed for lecture and pretty much nothing else.

     (Assumptions about teaching are built into the arrangements of classrooms; some are designed for one-way communication, with discussion difficult to pull off.)

     I had divided the class into groups, who sat together so they could try to do group work — good luck with that! — and the group in question sat in the audience-right corner, in the back, far from the podium.

     They made the long trek to the front of the room, and their required 15-20-minute presentation ran to something like half an hour by my watch — which was about twenty minutes beyond what they had to say and about two minutes short of when I would've stopped them before the class started throwing things at them.

     I was sitting in the audience, about halfway up the stairs, on the aisle. As he passed me going back to his seat, the group leader muttered, "It's harder than it looks."

     That's an important point about teaching.

     There is a lot of complaining about American teachers, much of it justified; but trust my student here, and please accept my word: it is harder than it looks.

     If not exactly an art, teaching is a craft, and, therefore, it takes a bit of talent and a whole lot of practice to do a good job, or even make it to mediocre.

     It can't beat the comment of the freshman on my house, and it's not a sign of the times; but the muttered admission by that student group leader is also a compliment I remember fondly. Indeed, teaching is one hell of a lot harder than it looks.

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