Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ever Have One of These?

I just finished up reading a novel with my seniors---one that they didn't particularly like. So I gave them my speech about it: "look, it's a novel about the elision of the desire and sexuality of young women. It's about how they get others' desires projected on to them, and how any number of people then benefit from those projections. In a moment at which we're fascinated and horrified by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, I think this novel is telling us something important about how and why those young women behave the way that they do, and why we care so much about them." At which point, one of the two young men in my class responded: "but it just doesn't have anything important to say."

Sigh.

I'm reluctant to make my students into archetypes, because I really run the risk of erasing their personalities (see above critique of novel). And yet, it occurs to me that this young man fits neatly into a category that I've encountered a number of times at Askesis. I'd say that the defining features are as follows:
  • significant interest in high culture male authors (Joyce, Pound, etc.)
  • significant interest and desire to imitate 60's era male authors (Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.)
  • inflated sense of self and abilities
  • deeply convinced that his own writing---both creative and analytic---is excellent
  • rejects criticism and suggestions for revision
  • disdain for/ignores female classmates
  • girl/boyfriendless
Do you all get this type? In addition to the specific student quoted above, I've had at least 4-5 of these in the last few years (admittedly, many of them were grouped together in a 2-3 year span). Is this just a new phenomenon, or have I not been paying attention?

I'm tempted to link the maintenance of these boys' positions to the rarefied atmosphere that they inhabit at Askesis. Because the population of the college is about 70% female, they find themselves in a strange position. On the one hand, they're vastly outnumbered, particularly in literature classes. It's not unusual at all for them to be the only male in a classroom of females. (Even in my course this semester, the dude is one of two, and the other male student is out. Really out. "Explained the mechanics of anal sex to the class" out.) And the young women have little to no compunction about discussing their own oppression vis-a-vis the media, or the ways that "guys are," etc. I assume that that holds true across courses as well, since we have a surfeit of female professors in my department, and in others throughout the college.

At the same time, the young women tell me that these young men also occupy a particularly privileged place in the romantic economy. They are vastly outnumbered, true, but that sets them up to be fought over by the young women. According to my graduated girl-moles, guys who would be mediocre in a different pond end up being pretty big fish at Askesis.

So is it this odd power dynamic inspired by their minority position that creates so many of these vexed young men? I'm often struck by the consistency of their literary tastes as well. Is there a handbook somewhere that they're all getting on the sly--the "How To Be an Ass and Alienate Women" Anthology (coming from Bedford in 2009!)?

And last but not least---why do they keep ending up in my courses?!! It's definitely the case that I teach the new stuff, but there are an up-and-coming bunch of young manly men profs in my department. Are they going to them? And do they treat them the same way? Because, ironically, this is what I get from the group. They're just on this side of sycophantic. Not in an obvious way (I don't think), but they like to sit near me in class (which allows them to participate by ignoring the other people in the room); come to my office hours; mention books in class that no one else has read. In general, I think there's a whole predictable bag of tricks that have the desired effect of publicly intimating/performing a camaraderie with me that doesn't exist, but that the other students clearly notice. The irony, of course, is not lost on me: the very girls that they're ignoring and looking down on are the ones that I was, 15 years ago. I'm fascinated by their ability to ignore that connection.

Over time, I've found that my most effective strategy is to ignore them; to constantly attach their ideas and comments to those of the young women in the class; to gently poke fun at their ridiculous comments (see above). I imagine that it's better to refuse to take them seriously than it is to entertain their positions like they're valid.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Sisyphus said...

Oh no --- this is not new or unusual at all. I don't think this is a large subculture, but I think the "manly man writer man" type has always been around this century (hello, Hemingway!). I was just telling funny stories to my students about how the cool kids all sat in the sculpture garden at Big Urban U and smoked clove cigarettes and talked about moving to Prague to write the Great American Novel ("And I never fit in --- it was like I was wearing mismatched shades of black, and nobody liked me, and I never figured out how to be one of the Cool Kids, and so I went to grad school, and so Just Say No to grad school, kids!")

I had one of these students in summer session, who really thought that the people of color we were reading were producing sociology, not art (sigh). The other students weren't comfortable enough to shut him down so there was a weird dynamic of me squishing him at odd times.

And I only got around to the Canonized Counterculture Writers this summer, as you might have seen from my blogging, but my housemate first year of grad school had a student she called "Lil Hunter S." and would make mocking remarks about his papers when we graded: "aw, how cute! Look at the lil guy try to swagger around like he's a better writer than Willa Cather! 'Cause he's really been out there and _lived_ in the world, at age 19, oh yes." And now that I have read Fear and Loathing and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, yup, I know exactly the persona she was talking about.

Whoo, I wrote a novel on your blog! Guess you can tell what topics set me off.

Saturday, October 11, 2008 4:31:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

There's a pedagogical article in here somewhere, about the fine art of squishing the manly man. I wonder if it's a particular dynamic set up with a certain kind of prof. For instance, my colleague, who takes no shit, had it out with this student early on in her class...

Sunday, October 12, 2008 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger Ashley said...

Oh, yeah, That Guy. He exists everywhere. And you will be utterly unsurprised to learn that I dated him multiple times in college. And, um, grad school.

Monday, October 13, 2008 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Actually, I dated him too. Good times. I just didn't share classes with him, so I didn't realize what a pedagogical conundrum he creates...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 7:30:00 AM  
Anonymous The Bittersweet Girl said...

Oh yeah. I know That Dude too. What an ass. At my U, That Dude usually gets squashed by an irate and articulate black or Latina female student -- one of the reasons I love teaching in an extremely diverse area. Makes my job so much easier when the students fight those fights themselves.

Friday, October 31, 2008 10:58:00 AM  

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