Feminist Coming Out Day: a brief report, and a note on the connection between sexual liberation and global justice

Happy Ash Wednesday to one and all.

We had a great turnout last night at our Feminist Coming Out Day Panel here at Pasadena City College. (If you click here and scroll down, you can see me with two of my great student organizers and speakers.) I was one of six speakers talking about feminism on a panel moderated by my wonderful colleague from the speech and rhetoric department, A.C. Panella. My fellow panelists included Myra Duran from Feminist Majority Foundation, Dinah Stephens from Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, Phoebe Brauer from Planned Parenthood Pasadena, Kathy Heintzmann, a teacher at nearby Arcadia High School who developed Women’s Lit courses on that campus, and my wonderful student Ahlam Hope Hariri, a Muslim-American feminist.

Our students worked tirelessly to put on the event, and KPFK radio taped the entire panel discussion for future broadcast. (I’ll have a link when available).

I was reminded, yet again, that we live with feminisms. There is no single code to which we all subscribe, beyond a conviction that sexual equality is worth fighting for and is a cause to which we have dedicated our lives. Oppressions intersect, as we so often say, and the fight for sexual justice is linked to other fights. It is always good to be reminded of that, particularly when you’re a middle-aged white male, tenured and cis-gendered and married and veritably dripping in unearned privilege!

I made one point last night that I always try to make. So much of my writing and teaching focuses on issues of sexuality and self-esteem, around pop culture and body image, eating disorders and perfectionism. Often, the more radically (or globally) inclined suggest that these are middle-class concerns. As one young man asked me recently, “How come you spend so much time talking about body image when we’ve got women suffering and dying in the Congo? Are eating disorders as bad as the rape epidemic going on there?”

Justice, I reminded him, is not a zero-sum game. Critiquing “princess culture” among middle-class American girls doesn’t mean that one has no interest in the plight of less fortunate women in the Congo, Afghanistan, or in undocumented migrant communities right here in Los Angeles. Furthermore, as I said last night, our personal liberation is a prerequisite for being a truly effective agent for change in the lives of others. As I learned in Twelve Step eons ago, “you can’t give away what you haven’t got.” Young women who are struggling with eating disorders often find that the disorder sucks up a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Sexual shame limits our capacity for compassion. If the privileged young women and men of America (and compared to the Congo, even working-class Americans of color are privileged) are beset by anxiety and self-doubt then they’re not going to be able to do as much as they otherwise might do for those who are suffering elsewhere.

So teaching sex-positivity and a responsible, pleasure-centred sex-ed curriculum is vital justice work. Equipping young women to extricate themselves from relentless perfectionism is part of healing the larger world. It’s not bourgeois myopia to focus on sex and the body — rather, focusing on these intensely personal issues is the gateway to building a more peaceful, equitable, light-filled world. Shame leads not only to self-absorption but to a sense of personal powerlessness. Empowering young people in the most intimate aspects of their lives gives them the tools and the energy and the excitement to go out and do the vital work of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

Personal empowerment and collective liberation are not at odds. Giving young people the first is what inspires them to be effective agents for bringing about the latter.

Feminist Coming Out Day

I’ll have a permalink to my appearance today on Hay House Radio with Michelle Phillips when it becomes available. And if you, like me, are a Los Angeles resident and voting in tomorrow’s municipal election, you might take the excellent recommendations of the LA Progressive website.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and it’s also Feminist Coming Out Day. Originally started at Harvard University in 2010, FCOD has gone nationwide this year. But of all the campuses doing official Feminist Coming Out Day projects, there’s only one two-year school formally participating: Pasadena City College. As an adviser to the college Feminist Club, I’m very proud of my students. I’m particularly proud that the club hosted an inspirational visit last month from Lena Chen, a Feminist Coming Out Day founder and celebrated columnist. Chen — who first emerged as a courageous sex blogger during her undergraduate years — is a marvelous role model to my students. We’re so pleased to be part of this extraordinary project she helped found.

I’ll be one of many panelists for a Feminist Coming Out Day Event tomorrow evening from 6-8PM in the Circadian Lounge in the Campus Center at PCC. The public is welcome, and you can check out our Facebook event page here. And if you twitter, use the hashtag #afeministlookslike.

Feminism isn’t just an ideology to me. It isn’t just what I “do” professionally, though I am blessed to make a living as a feminist professor and writer. Feminism is a movement for global and personal transformation, the single best vehicle for bringing about a more just and compassionate world that I have ever encountered. Feminism connected me to my humanity, reminded me that my biology was never my destiny nor my limitation. Feminism liberated me to see myself as a complete human being, and it forced me to do the hard but glorious work of growing up and taking full responsibility for my actions and my life.

After nearly twenty years of teaching women’s studies, I’ve watched how feminist scholarship and activism has empowered and reshaped the lives of countless students, men and women alike. I’ve watched in awe as young (and not so young) women found their voices, found their passion, found their anger and found their purpose in feminist work. I’ve watched with pride as young (and not so young) men have come to reconsider their relationships with mothers, sisters, wives and lovers as a result of beginning a feminist journey. I am convinced to my core that feminism is a force for political, social, sexual, economic and even spiritual liberation in the lives of men and women.

I am proud to call myself a feminist.

For every slacker, a perfectionist: some thoughts on class, sex, and the community college

One of the things about teaching full-time at an urban community college is that I have a front-row seat for social, economic, and cultural change. And when it comes to issues of race, class, and gender, the transformations I’ve seen in the last two years have been profound.

California, like so many other states, has been hard-hit by the recession. We’re on our third straight year of draconian cutbacks to higher education, with no end in sight. Fees are rising, class sections are being cut, hiring is frozen. And this has changed the student population, at least in my classes.

My students are whiter and more middle-class than they’ve been in over a decade. From the mid-90s until the mid-00′s, Pasadena City College grew progressively “less white”, with European-American students falling from perhaps 30% of the student body when I began teaching to about 15% by 2005. (And at PCC, we count immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from much of the Middle East as “white”, including students of Arabic and Armenian descent.) But with the coming of the economic downturn, the white middle-class kids are returning in droves.

Students who once would have skipped the community college and headed straight to state universities are coming here first, both because of cost considerations and because spaces have been drastically reduced at California’s public four-year institutions. In our community college district, we have more than a dozen high schools that serve as our feeders. But traditionally, we’ve drawn relatively small numbers of kids from the “affluent” schools (like La Canada and San Marino High Schools). I note — and this is all anecdata — that within the past two years, the number of students coming from those more prosperous communities has climbed.

What this means, of course, is that I have more students than ever in my classes who are “college-ready.” The percentage of my students whose writing and reasoning skills need remedial attention is lower. But the danger is that at a place like PCC, the students from more privileged backgrounds raise the competition level — and make it easier for those who lack basic skills to fall through the cracks. When the average goes up (and in most of my classes over the past two years, the “average” scores on exams have indeed risen), competition grows fiercer. And in an era of declining resources (we’ve had major cutbacks to our tutoring and counseling services), that means it’s harder than ever for the college to function as a ladder into the middle class.

There’s something interesting happening as well around gender. I’m getting more men in my classes again. In my nearly twenty years here, women have averaged around 55% of overall enrollment, though that number is skewed by the high number of men in vocational education classes. In the humanities and social sciences, the percentage of women has hovered around 65% of all students until recently. But we’re seeing more men coming in, no doubt due to the terrible job climate.

But here’s where the sex differences remain stark. It’s axiomatic that the poor economy has ratcheted up anxiety for everyone. But from listening to students in my gender studies classes, that anxiety manifests quite differently for men and women. While both men and women are more likely to live with their parents for longer periods than before, my female students are much more likely to carry full academic loads. While I have roughly equal numbers of men and women in all my classes save for women’s studies, those who are taking more than the standard 15 unit semester load are overwhelmingly female. My female students are also more likely to be working multiple part-time jobs. Continue reading

It would be funny if it weren’t so deadly: why Amy Chua has blood on her hands

A reader sends me a link to this piece that’s getting a fair amount of discussion this week: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I read it twice, convinced on the first read that it was satire, but on the second, coming to the depressing conclusion that it was anything but. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, celebrates the relentless inculcation of perfectionism, pushing back against the growing public concern about the damage that the relentless pursuit of the unattainable is doing to our children (particularly our daughters.) Indeed, Chua’s piece is so outrageous, so Swiftian in its defense of the indefensible, that part of me still suspects it’s particularly well-veiled satire.

Chua writes that we (presumably middle and upper-middle class “white” parents of the sort who make up many of her fellow Ivy League faculty) are far too concerned with our children’s self-esteem, and focused too little on what actually gives kids esteem, which is mastery of something. That’s the sort of thing that sounds good when you first read it, but becomes horrifying upon reflection — and upon comparison of Chua’s gleeful celebration of Chinese success with the reality I work with every damn day in my classes.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

About one-third of the students at Pasadena City College — a public two-year, open-admission institution — are of Asian ancestry. The plurality, if not the outright majority of those East Asian students are of Chinese ancestry. Some are immigrants themselves, many are children of immigrants, but few are more than second-generation Americans. They came from across the Chinese world and its diaspora (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, as well as the mainland itself.) Most are Mandarin-speakers.

Many of them, particularly in my Humanities and Gender Studies classes, tell me that their mothers were much like Amy Chua. Many were shamed, some were beaten, almost all were made to feel inadequate. Many, particularly from the more affluent areas of the San Gabriel Valley like San Marino, were expected to get straight As and be accepted into prestigious four-year universities. A great many didn’t, and most (despite what Chua claims) got Bs, and more than a few had high school transcripts littered with Cs. Chua peddles (one hopes, how one hopes, with tongue in cheek) the myth of the model minority, the myth in which average grades, depression, drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders and significant learning disabilities simply don’t happen to Chinese children. In her world, Chinese children don’t get rejected from Berkeley and Stanford and Princeton. But I have Chinese-American students who were not only rejected from those schools, they didn’t have the grades to get into Cal State Los Angeles.

Many of these Chinese-American students are at PCC for financial reasons, but the notion that all or even most could have gone to Berkeley if only there’d been a bit more money is also very much a myth. Many of these students were pushed and tutored and browbeaten (and beaten for real), and still couldn’t make the grades. Some marinate at home, they tell me, in the hostile simmer of their parents’ disappointment. A lucky few have parents who have adopted a more tender and compassionate model, encouraging effort rather than insisting rigidly on a perfect outcome. They are a small minority. Far more are shell-shocked, numb from years and years of the very abuse that Chua celebrates. (I not only know this through my students, but from my first wife, who was born to a Chinese mother and a Filipino father. I saw the success — but also the haunting damage — up close.)

The Yale professor may have daughters who play instruments beautifully and got near-perfect scores on their SATS. I had a student in 2008, the daughter of immigrants who owned a dry cleaners, who tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning products when her transfer application was rejected by UCLA. I’ve heard many other stories of suicide and suicide attempts. If we’re gonna get anecdotal, no ethnic group in the multicultural melting pot that is PCC has had as many self-reported incidents of self-harm per capita as have my East Asian students. That’s based on more than 18 years of community college teaching and mentoring, including five years as advisor to the overwhelmingly Asian honor students’ society, but it’s also based on the reality that Chinese-Americans 15-24 are much more likely to kill themselves than are white teens, a statistic that’s remained depressingly consistent since the 1980s. None of my Chinese students have taken their lives while my students, but I hear more stories of attempts — and the deaths of friends and siblings — than I do from any other ethnic group.

Chua’s assumption — that the pressure cooker of perfectionism will cause short-term pain but long-term success — simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. Let her come and meet my queer Chinese-American students who’ve been hit and humiliated and disowned. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students with dyslexia who’ve been called stupid so often the light has faded from their eyes. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students who are overweight, including the young woman whose mother only lets her eat cabbage and water at home and rifles through her room, looking for the sweets she’s convinced her daughter is hiding. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Chinese-American parents have a monopoly on the cruel inculcation of perfectionism; that is, as even Chua admits, a multi-ethnic phenomenon. But to assume, as she does with staggering myopia, that a little adolescent suffering invariably leads to long-term success, simply isn’t backed by the evidence.

Chua knows this, of course. She knows that Chinese-American children don’t all go to Yale or its equivalent. Many have parents who pushed them relentlessly, but for any number of excellent reasons, the straight As did not appear. There are more Chinese and Chinese-American students in community colleges than in the Ivy League, and I’d venture that since I started teaching here in 1993, I’ve taught at least 4000 of them, probably more than she has or even ever will. But she knows, surely, about the higher rate of suicide as well as suicidal ideation and depression — and she probably knows those rates are particularly high among Chinese-American young women. If she does know — and if this isn’t Swiftian satire — then she’s guilty of celebrating not only a falsehood, but a lethal one. Chua deserves not mere polite disagreement, but repudiation and scorn for perpetuating an ideal that is directly and unmistakably linked to suffering and self-harm. I’ve seen too much suffering in my years of teaching and mentoring — and been too convinced of the cause by unmistakable evidence — to let a fear of being labeled culturally insensitive blind me from my obligation to say three words to Chua: Shame. On. You.

Fortunately, the repudiation is coming from many quarters, including some wonderful and important bloggers like Angry Asian Man.
May it continue to come.

The challenge of confrontation: dismantling rape culture one conversation at a time

Clarisse Thorn wrote a Thanksgiving post, in which she raises an all-too-familiar problem:

One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life; every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

Clarisse wrote to an ex of hers for his take, and he replied:

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us… I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing…

I agree with Clarisse’s ex, both about the necessity of confrontation in some form and the wisdom of acknowledging that those around us are never entirely what they seem. (This doesn’t mean that most people are fraudulent, merely that we tend to see blacks and whites more clearly than we see shades of gray.) And I think this willingness to raise hard questions is particularly important for men.

I’ve often made the case that the true measure of a man’s commitment to gender justice doesn’t just lie in how he treats women, but how he interacts with other men when there are no women around. Most young women have had the utterly infuriating experience of having a male buddy, boyfriend, or brother who is sweet and sensitive when she’s alone with him — but who turns into a troglodytic jerk when other men are around. That sudden shift from kindness to doltishness can be chalked up to the homosocial pressure to be “one of the guys”, a pressure that tends to trump everything else in young men’s lives. And so I repeat the message that I learned a long time ago: part of being a good male ally lies in challenging the sexism of other men even when there are no women around. Actually, if there is a litmus test that distinguishes a boy from a man, that might be it: the courage to stand up to other men and to endure the homophobic insults that will surely come when he challenges the attitudes and actions of his “bros.”

Feminists often talk about “rape culture.” Rape culture doesn’t just mean a culture in which rape happens — it means a culture in which sexual assault is condoned, or excused, or minimized, or even actively facilitated. For example, fraternity parties to which young women are invited and encouraged to binge drink are part of rape culture, as they involve the use of alcohol and social pressure to undermine young women’s capacity to give or deny meaningful consent to sex. Rape jokes are part of rape culture, as is the loathsome use of “rape”idiomatically to refer to any action of domination or success. (An example I overheard in the hall last week: “Dude, I totally raped that test.”) But nothing — nothing — sustains rape culture like silence. And given that men are raised to be homosocial (meaning they place intense value on the opinion of their male peers), and given that it is men who are doing almost all of the raping, it is the reluctance of the so-called “good guys” to challenge other men that allows rape culture to survive.

A true story:

As I’ve written many, many times, I had a series of consensual sexual relationships with my adult students when I was first a professor at PCC. The fact that most of these students were my chronological peers (one or two were even older than I), and that the relationships were often initiated by those students does nothing to mitigate the unethical and irresponsible nature of what I did. It was an abuse of power, and all sexualized abuses of power fall on what might be called a “rape spectrum.” What I did wasn’t rape in that it didn’t violate the consent of the adult women with whom I was having sex — but it was on that spectrum nonetheless because the power imbalance may have had at least some impact on the capacity of these women to give meaningful consent. (I acknowledge agency, but also acknowledge the social and cultural pressures that can undermine agency.) Continue reading

The kids are all right: on awareness, sex-positivity, and political activism

Academics are famous for their tendency to see the wrong more clearly than they see the right. Trained as we are in graduate school seminars to be critics, encouraged to elevate suspicion to the cardinal virtue, we’re often much more articulate in explaining the problems than in proposing workable solutions. And we often tend to forget to celebrate what’s right and what’s good.

After my flurry of recent posts on sexualization, my friend Elyse wrote me and suggested, tactfully, that while I had made a pretty good case for the negative impact contemporary culture is having on young women, I ought to focus as well on what’s exciting and good. Last Wednesday’s post on webcams and privacy was inspired by a query from a student about what changes I’d witnessed in my years of teaching. And it certainly isn’t the only major change I’ve seen.

So, three bits of good news about college students from my perspective.

1. Now in my eighteenth year of community college teaching, I’m excited by the way in which my students in recent years have embraced the Internet to become much more savvy about feminism and gender justice. In my introductory women’s studies course, I still get plenty of students who have no idea what feminism is or why it matters. It was always so. But each semester, the number of young people who enroll already possessed of a feminist foundation grows. Some already read Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin years ago, or have been visiting feminist websites — famous and obscure — since ninth grade. When I started teaching, radical notions about women’s equality were confined to college campuses and specialty bookstores; they were largely inaccessible to, say, the daughters of immigrants going to high school in the San Gabriel Valley. Now, thanks to the ‘net, those ideas are widely disseminated, often presented in ways that click with a multi-cultural and economically challenged population of young women. By the time they hit my classroom, many of my newest students already have been given a thorough primer in gender justice. That’s a novel and exciting development, and it bodes well.

2. My students today are much more comfortable talking about sexuality than were students just fifteen years ago. In class discussions as well as in their journals, the young women I’m working with are far more willing to talk about issues like masturbation, birth control, enthusiastic consent, and exploring same-sex attraction than were the students I taught when I first came to PCC. (To be fair, I’m a much better teacher today than I was then, and a much safer presence. But I hear similar things from feminist colleagues who’ve been at this gig as long as I have, so I don’t think this new openness has much to do with my particular personality or teaching style.) For example, as recently as a decade ago, I very rarely had female students argue passionately in defense of pornography. When they did take that stance, they invariably took it on First Amendment grounds; today’s students, many of whom have explored visual erotica since the onset of puberty if not before, tend to take a much more positive view of the liberating potential of cybersexuality.

“Sex-positivity” among young women isn’t just an over-hyped media creation, it’s a real and growing trend in the lives of this particular generation of college students. This is the flip side to the Paris Paradox, the equally real problem of being “sexy” but not “sexual”. This is a generation of young women who’ve been able to buy vibrators online from sites like Babeland, and a generation that’s used the same Internet to get the truth about sex education concealed from them by noxious and stultifying abstinence-only campaigns. (Scarleteen is the indispensable source for detailed and authentically empowering information.) This generation of girls grew up more bombarded than ever with confusing messages about what it means to be a young woman — but they also grew up with more tools to decide the question for themselves than any generation before them. I’m excited for them, and excited for what they’ll do in the world. And I’m very excited to meet their younger siblings.

3. There’s been a huge upswing in political activism. I spent my adolescence as a lonely progressive in the early Reagan Era, surrounded by high school classmates who saw apathy as a virtue. The situation was not much better when I started at PCC, in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Between 1995 and 2006, I served as an advisor to no fewer than six different feminist-themed clubs. Time and again, I tried to interest my students in gender justice activism. Time and again, a club would get started by a few wonderful young people — and then the club would collapse as soon as those leaders graduated. There was no sustained interest in having a presence on campus dedicated to exploring issues around sexuality, feminism, reproductive rights and so forth. But in 2007, with the help of Feminist Majority, we got another club — the seventh since I’ve been here — up and running. And for three years now, it’s thrived.

The club was active in the 2008 election, and when the inevitable hangover came, I worried that many young people would lose interest in feminist work. Instead, I saw the club grow in 2009, galvanized in particular by the assassination of George Tiller and by the campaign to end the disaster of abstinence-only education. In talking with feminist organizers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Feminist Majority, I discovered that our happy experience at PCC was being replicated across the country. We’ve seen a renaissance of feminist political activism on college campuses, a rebirth heavily assisted by social networking. (I have no idea how we’d put a Feminist Club meeting together on this campus without Facebook.) The confluence of these new social networking technologies with a more anxious and politicized era has given birth to a new generation of young women activists. The issues are largely the same as when I started teaching: economic justice, body image, violence prevention, reproductive freedom, the right to pleasure. But the percentage of students involved in the struggle has risen exponentially, and the tools they use to connect to fellow activists are astonishingly effective. There is much reason to hope, and much reason to rejoice.

Sex, Rape, and Enthusiastic Consent: audio file up

At the invitation of my very own Pasadena City College Feminist Club, I gave a talk today at noon on “enthusiastic consent,” focusing on the problems with the “yes means yes” message, people-pleasing, and the “consent spectrum.” My student Dan Mekpong taped the presentation and has put the audio file online. The link is here. We had about sixty people show up, which was nice, and there were some good questions at the end.

I am available to give similar talks to high school and college settings, and have given this presentation everywhere from Fuller Seminary to Brown University to a number of different high schools.

Some of what I talked about is in this old post.

Clothing, class, and the community college

From July 2006.

This post about the “tell your boyfriend I said thanks” t-shirt briefly diverted onto a subject of dress and class.  I wrote:

To generalize enormously, the less privileged the background, the more intense the sense of competition among young women.  Far too many young ones grow up with a sense that their sexual desirability is a more marketable commodity than their intellectual accomplishments; this is all the more likely to be true in families where there isn’t a history of women going to college.  (If you don’t believe me, visit any American community college on a hot day — and then visit an elite university in the same weather.  You’ll see more mini-skirts and heels in five minutes at Pasadena City College than you will in five hours at Berkeley or Stanford.  That’s anecdotal, sure, but don’t take my word for it — try it yourself.)  The bottom line: class and sexual competitiveness among women are, to say the least, not unrelated!

Glendenb’s comment was so good I wanted to repost part of it:

I think the difference was between people who saw education as a right and those who saw it a privilege. Among the students at the cc, they dressed in their best (which for some was heels and mini skirt) to show that they deserved the privilege but also to combat a social dis-ease; they were aware that they were moving across a social dividing line and were attempting to prove they belonged. Students who were first in their family to attend college were straddling a social dividing line – breaking from a set of values that weren’t comfortable with the extreme casualness around sexuality, but not yet fully embracing a set of values in which sexuality was (far too often) separated from emotion.

Students at my undergraduate college perceived education as their right – the hedonism, brazen sexuality, deliberate crossing of behavioral barriers that were not crossed in their upper-middle class families were seen as part and parcel of the college experience – the icing on the cake. They didn’t have to prove they belonged at college to anyone, least of all themselves. At the community college, many students were trying to prove to themselves that they deserved to be there. What to my eye was sexualized behavior, was really a more carefully studied mimicking of what was perceived as appropriate collegiate behavior. Clothing choices were made that would help students feel brash, or strong, or confident in ways that students from the upper middle class didn’t feel they needed.

The bold emphasis is mine.  To use the Anglicism to which my passport entitles me, that’s "spot on".

I note this phenomenon is not merely confined to women.  Many first-generation male students, particularly but not exclusively East Asian (PCC is over 33% Asian), are ostentatiously fond of labels, particularly those that they associate with the "establishment."  Every year, even on hot summer days, my classes will be filled with remarkably neat young men in pressed khakis wearing Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, A&F, or even — oh, flashbacks to ’80s preppydom! — Brooks Brothers polo shirts.  The labels are always conspicuous.  Reading Glendenb’s comments, it occurs to me that these young upwardly mobile fellows are indeed mimicking what they imagine to be the appropriate attire of the privileged.  (Only later will some of them transfer to Cal, Stanford, and Georgetown and discover that the real privileged tend to be far more unkempt.) 

The names of many young men — particularly young Chinese from Hong Kong — are often rather touchingly quaint.  This summer, I have — these are first names, mind you — a "Fitzgerald"; a "Woodrow"; three "Benedicts" (my middle name); two "Henrys"; one "Maxwell"; and, my favorite, one "Colfax."   It sounds like a parody of the membership roster of my grandfather’s fraternity, circa 1926!  And at the risk of sounding horribly classist, it strikes me as a rather naive attempt to deliberately appropriate WASP cache.   Imagine all of these parents, newly immigrated, working long hours to clothe young "Winston Wilberforce Chan" in what television has led them to believe is the outfit of success: polo shirts and chinos with shiny penny loafers.   From the perspective of someone who grew up in WASP country-club culture, this sincere attempt at imitation strikes me as, at the least, oddly misplaced!

But as Glendenb points out, those of us who have "made it" and have an easy sense of entitlement ought not to be too quick to judge those who are eager to ascend the social ladder our ancestors climbed for us.  This morning, I’m wearing a pair of slightly distressed women’s jeans and one very bright multi-colored paisley cowboy shirt.  I’ve got a Paul Frank watch on (with Julius the Monkey in Mariachi garb.)  The affect is no doubt garish, and probably — outside of major urban centers — decidedly effeminate.  But I’ve got tenure, and I’ve got the security to know that my authority in no way hinges on whatever get-up I get myself in to.  I can afford to dress for comfort and to honor my own admittedly odd fashion sense.  Even when I was younger, as an undergrad or a grad student, I slouched around Berkeley and Westwood in old concert t-shirts and ripped 501s.    Like most of my compatriots, my certainty that I "belonged" gave me the freedom to be slovenly.  It wasn’t "affected working-class chic"; it was laziness, and a laziness reinforced by the certainty that such sloppiness would not be an obstacle to acceptance in a milieu that was, after all, mine by birthright.

In thirteen years of community college teaching, I’ve learned to be a hell of a lot less judgmental of my students.   I’m not offended, aroused, angered, or distracted by anything my students do or don’t wear — though from time to time, I’ll confess I’m still amused (a reaction I keep to myself as much as possible).  Glendenb’s point is well-taken: what students wear tends to reflect not only their personal style, but also their perception of what college is, and their own ease with being here.  I do well — we all do well — to remember that as we comment on the remarkable diversity of choices our students make each morning as they dress themselves.

“You are so far from hot”: the tiresome fall-out from my Ratemyprofessors “award”

It’s been nearly two years since I “won” the honor (however dubious) of being named “America’s Hottest Professor” by the Ratemyprofessors website.

Over the weekend, an anonymous comment ended up in my moderation queue for this blog:

You are so far from hot. You rated yourself over and over again to win that award. Your (sic) ugly and vain and a poser.

I get comments like that every few weeks now, though in the days after I won the 2008 award from RMP, they were much more frequent. My actual ratemyprofessors page was spammed with all sorts of vileness, though whoever moderates that site did take down most of the cruelest and most scurrilous postings.

I was happy when I won the “award” not because I genuinely believed myself to be the most physically attractive college professor in the States — I doubt that’s true even within my own department. But I was excited about the possibility of leveraging whatever small degree of notoriety came with the announcement to drive traffic here to this blog and to gain a larger audience for my writing and speaking engagements. Not being very wise about this sort of thing, I operated with the “all publicity is good publicity” mindset, and though I would much rather have been named “best teacher”, I figured this little bit of recognition could only help.

My friend Jane, a PR professional, reminds me that that little saying about publicity is frequently untrue. Interviewers and media outlets have not come knocking as a result of my being named hottest prof. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to start work on other projects, and to collaborate on a forthcoming book (about which more will come, promise) none of those opportunities were linked to the Ratemyprofessors distinction.

On the other hand, my ego has taken one heck of a battering. Sometimes, it’s seemed a bit like some sort of sadistic high school prank: set the dorky kid up for something for which he’s manifestly not qualified, and then rip him ruthlessly. I generally stay away from the Ratemyprofessors site itself, as I don’t trust the authenticity of what’s written there. But the emails and anonymous comments, even when they are quickly deleted, do take their toll. I remember being an awkward, unattractive teenager. Frankly, the continued reaction to the Ratemyprofessors brings back unpleasant thirty year-old memories of being teased. (It’s worth noting that there’s male privilege involved here. Were I a female professor who had won, and my “victory” was considered equally undeserved, I suspect the comments would have been even ruder and more vociferous.)

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a source of great pain in my life. I have a wife and daughter who mean the world to me, a job I love, a community of friends and students and colleagues whose support is an indispensable joy. Their gentle ribbing is affectionate and welcome. My looks mean less to me than my health; my worries around my body these days are less about my appeal to others and more about staying fit under a breakneck schedule. But I’d be lying if I said that the steady flow of nasty reminders of just how undeserved the 2008 award was didn’t take just a little bit of a toll. While winning the “hottest professor of 2008″ title wasn’t quite the same as being handed a poisoned chalice, the taste of that “victory” has proved decidedly bittersweet.