Education destroys something: Stray notes on class, college, and that Gawker piece

Coat Hooks4One afternoon in August 2005, my first day on-campus as a full-time college professor, I was mistaken for someone from the maintenance department. I wore blue jeans, a Carhartt shortsleeved shirt, and Doc Martens. Pretty much my uniform walking around New York City. Upstate, however, with a wide stocky frame and facial hair, my look indicated something else.

One secretary mistook me. Then another. Were people not accustomed to an academic in blue jeans and a work shirt? Maybe it was something else, something deeper. Was it the way I carried myself, talked? Was it my class?

***

Class distinctions have always fascinated me. Growing up in a blue collar town, a truck driver’s son who worked at a car wash since he was 13, the very idea of college was alien, exotic. Walking the hallways of a college–from Rutgers to NYU, New School and my current college–I can’t help but wonder how I ended up there, and how can I navigate this new, supposedly post-class world of the academy.

“Even among my colleagues and friends, many of them Ivy League graduates, I have trouble finding the same cultural anchors,” Naton Leslie, the late Siena professor, writes in his essay, “You Were Raised Better Than That.” “I have learned about the social assumptions of private schools and preparatory schools, the social conventions of the daughters and sons of the well-off who in becoming academics are self-consciously downwardly mobile. I’ve somehow met them in the middle.”

Meeting in the middle. The story of my life.

***

It’s just a fact that academics, most academics, come from a different background than mine. For the most part, I find it refreshing. But there is a different attitude toward the actual work that I still can’t pinpoint. It’s not entitlement, not exactly. Neither does that overused word, privilege. Genteel, or gentility, comes closer. This different attitude manifests itself in many ways, the most basic of which is body language.

Maybe my body language in 2005 said  I am here to work on your HVAC system rather than I am here to get oriented on Blackboard.

***

Two weeks ago, I published an essay on Gawker called “Why Professors Complain So Much.” It had a couple working titles before that. “Syllabusting My Balls” was by far my favorite, followed by “In Defense of 24/7 Professoring” and “On That Professor Who Banned Students From Emailing Her.” It’s about how professors have found new ways to complain about their jobs, to fend off students from emailing them, among other things.

I stopped reading the comments as soon as the trolls kicked in, most notably the contingent that made the flimsy non-connection of the adjunct union vote at my college (they won, which is great) and my essay’s attempt to de-value … what exactly I don’t know. Before I got a full-time tenure-track job, I worked as an underpaid adjunct for nine years in New York City, and so I am down with the cause. My main point was to examine, and come up with some answers to, the question of why academics complain about their work so much, no matter full-time, adjunct, or graduate student.

There was another comment about my irreverent tone, which confuses me, since Gawker is famous for that. What’s interesting is that it led this person to misread what I wrote about trigger warnings, and how professors complain about having to use them, to warn their worthless and weak students about controversial content. I could go either way on the trigger warning debate, but my point was how professors complain, from both sides, about them. This comment-writer couldn’t get past the tone, and my guess is that that person was very middle class, born and bred. There, I said it.

***

“Man hands on misery to man,” poet Philip Larkin famously writes, a philosophy academics take up eagerly to complain about their jobs. Many of my fellow professors have refined handing on misery into an art form.

“In the collective eye of the academy,” Stanley Fish writes in “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos, “sloppiness, discourtesy, indifference, and inefficiency are virtues, signs of an admirable disdain for the mere surfaces of things, a disdain that is itself a sign of a dedication to higher, if invisible, values.” Fish wouldn’t be such a divisive figure in my tribe if he hadn’t touched a nerve when he wrote that piece than 20 years ago.

As a working class academic, I am a tasker, a worker-bee. I know I’ll never be administrative material and run college-wide meetings. If there’s one thing I disdain, it’s not getting the job done. Which gives me away.

***

Rebecca Schuman, education columnist at Slate, has built up a cottage industry of complaining about modern college student impulses. She berates, then regrets, a student for poking around on Facebook in a lecture class. Let them find out it’s a mistake on their own, she concludes. She bemoans grade inflation, which as these things go, is worthy of discussion, but instead uses the topic as an excuse to post up professors’ tweet-complaints about obnoxious grade-grubbing student. She then wraps her argument around the flag of adjuncts’ insecure place in academe, instead of addressing how students grades are determined (papers and exams, mostly). It’s not only Schulman, of course. But just what, exactly, is wrong with getting an email from a student with an informal tone?

And now someone over at Inside Higher Ed has taken a look at Schuman’s work, which has irked and annoyed me for its feelings of entitlement and privilege for years now. Charles Green takes the genteel academic’s approach, breaking down her take on peer review, her cherry-picking of crowdsourced tweets to prove her sweeping generalizations about everything from grade inflation to people’s general cluelessness about the Academic Life. It’s concern-trolling as think piece, and while it can be entertaining to most, it’s not exactly the spot-on portrayal of academics it purports to be.

***

I wore a black shirt on my first day in 2005 to hide any sweat stains that might accrue from lugging boxes of books from my car. Never someone who followed trends in male facial hair, I hadn’t shaved off my beard that morning. I splashed my face with Old Spice. I might, if memory serves, applied under-eye cream before putting on my glasses. I’ve always wanted to blend in, and for the most part it’s worked. Except for class.

In Limbo: Blue Collare Roots, White Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano talks about Straddlers, people who were born working class and are now middle class, and how those two worlds often conflict collide. “Professors are the most self-conscious Straddlers,” Lubrano writes, “working with middle class colleagues who don’t understand them, all the while teaching mostly middle-class kids how to become the bosses of their parents, siblings, cousins, and childhood friends.”

There are a few books about class in academia, but most of them address teaching economic class in the classroom, and are rife with academese. Which is a shame. The perception I have is that, in academe, dealing with issues from the perspective of the working class folks isn’t important. It’s usually a top-down affair, with activists taking working class people by the ear and telling them what’s good for them. Protest, they say, occupy this, read that, vote for this candidate. That’s been the story since the Bolsheviks and before and it’s not likely to stop anytime soon.

We’re always going to have wide-eyed Patricians taking pity on the working class rather than talking to them. That would be too difficult; or, to use one of my favorite middle class words, uncomfortable.

***

When I explain my job to people from my hometown–the classes, committees, rubrics, papers, emails, accreditations, assessments, curriculums vitae–I always fill up the silence at the end–for there always is silence, since most people on the outside, working class or not, cannot believe what our jobs comprise–with the following phrase: it beats real work.

What do I mean by that? Am I embarrassed for doing what I do? I think that’s part of it. Call it survivor guilt, straddling, meeting in the middle; it might not need a name. But it’s there.

***

Education destroys something. That’s true. For me, it’s destroyed many of the links to who I once was, where I came from. I can no longer relate to people I grew up with or near.

It also builds something else. I’m now in this other world of ideas and papers and syllabi, which I love. I love being in a classroom and teaching about critical thinking, commas, quotes and summaries. It’s the only job I’ve had–and I have had many, from church janitor, car washer, library book shelver, proofreader, and all things in between–that I am actually good at doing.

For the better part of two decades, I’ve met people in the middle and that’s fine. But education does destroy something.

***

Working class isn’t the same as being eccentric or having a father who moved from one used car sales job to another. Whenever someone self-identifies as “working class,” “dirt poor,” or, worse, “white trash,” we’re talking primarily about a breed of person who self-brands, who sells out their class to advance a new identity.

I sometimes feel like a misfit in both worlds: the world of quizzes and reading lists and the non-academic, non-quiz world.

Most working-class people, I suspect, when they leave the working class and enter academia, simply deny their class. They adopt another identity and leave the other behind. That’s fine. To be working class is always to deny being working class. You’re middle class. That’s what you say you are. People who are upper class never say they’re upper class. They say they’re middle class.

Others struggle. They perform class, as academics like to put it. I lecturing freshmen about getting their work done and going through drafts, because it’s their job as new college students to do so.

***

To admit to being working class means you’re at the mercy of someone else’s time, some boss’s schedule. You’re not in charge. Working class is something you simply are; you don’t perform it. It’s not something to analyze or parse.

In graduate school, my poems were called “white trash poems” by two people in my workshop: a dude from a rich southern family who kept his blonde hair in a ponytail, and a woman whose parents were from India and Pakistan, and often talked about servants and traveling to Europe.  At the time, I brushed both of them off, but it’s stuck in my craw for years now. What could I have said in response to that, as I sat there with a poem about my grandfather? I can only think of combinations of curse words.

***

With each year I have taught as a college professor, I feel more distanced from where I came. This isn’t good or bad. It’s just a fact. This is my version of the complaining professor, so I feel more at home.

 

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The 2012 Rutgers-Rowan merger op-ed that never ran

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Back in 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie presented a statewide reorganization plan for its colleges. Much of that plan has since been implemented, but one particular aspect has not: merging the Camden campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, with Rowan University, formerly Glassboro State College, into a single University of South Jersey system. That aspect of the plan was met with an uproar from my alma mater, Rutgers-Camden.

Tempers ran high. Neither side did themselves any favors in the weeks to come. Chris Christie pretty much presented the plan as a done deal, and then took on naysayers in his signature blustery tone, even calling one an “idiot.” For their part, the anti-merger folks ignored Rutgers-Camden’s systemic and very real identity problem of being an outpost campus dependent on a governing body in New Brunswick. They also adopted rallying calls like Rutgers Leaves Camden Bleeds, which at best reflected a noblesse oblige toward the city that would surprise anyone who has actually lived in Camden, myself included.

It was in the middle of this that I wrote an op-ed in favor of the merger–or, to be more specific, the idea of a merger–and sent it along to my hometown’s local daily newspaper, The Courier-Post. It was all set to run that summer. Then I chickened out: in the weeks that followed, on Facebook and Twitter and even email, I was flamed to no end when I expressed even a pro-merger peep. “You’re just a Norcross hack,” someone wrote, referring to South Jersey powerbroker Donald Norcross, a proponent of the plan (who would also benefit from it). Other messages had, you know, bad words in them. If anything, the whole debacle proved to me I don’t have thick enough skin to be Maureen Dowd.

Two years later, the plan pretty much scrapped, I still think I had a point. Rutgers-Camden remains Rutgers, with some changes on the governance level. It remains very much as a satellite of the larger main campus just one hour up the New Jersey Turnpike. And many grads still leave “Camden” off their resumes entirely, which saddens me to no end.

At any rate, here’s the op-ed, bio intact.

 

SellitsnameThe Case for a New University of South Jersey

ALBANY, NY—In 1949, Arthur Armitage, president of the College of South Jersey, offered to rename his college.

His price? A million dollars.

“We are not so enamored with the name,” Armitage told the New York Times, “that we wouldn’t be very glad to change it if some wealthy person wants to make a generous endowment.”

Armitage got his wish, in a manner of speaking, when the next year the college absorbed into Rutgers.

Like many South Jersey natives, I’m a Rutgers graduate. A Rutgers-Camden graduate. That distinction doesn’t mean much up here in Albany, where I now live. But it does for me, just as saying I’m from South Jersey, not North, and I’m a Phillies fan, not part of Yankees Nation.

South Jersey pride is partly why I’m excited at the prospect of a Rutgers-Rowan merger, proposed last month by Gov. Chris Christie.

The prospect of a single institution with its own law, business, engineering and medical schools has been met with universal scorn from current Rutgers-Camden students and alumni. The Internet overflows with petitions, Facebook pages, and handwringing over the prestige of their degrees.

My reaction is different. I see the prospect of a university, preferably with a new name, as a chance for South Jersey to make its mark.

Business-wise, this is a no-brainer. A large, integrated research university south of Exit 9 can get more grants, create biomedical and technology jobs, and train much needed medical specialists in what is already one of the centers for healthcare in the U.S. If what happened at Penn is any indication, those dollars eventually spill over into other areas and programs.

We’re also talking about logical partnerships as opposed to ones in name only. Alongside Newark, Camden depends on New Brunswick for its existence. The needs of the main campus “always takes precedence,” Stephen J. Diner, Rutgers-Newark’s former Chancellor, writes in the Star-Ledger. Construction, academics, tenure decisions, all come to Piscataway for sign-offs. Rutgers is the only doctoral-granting institution that doesn’t have one president per college. This mothership model is no way to run a university, let alone a mid-sized college.

The formation of a South Jersey college consortium, the alternative put forth by Rutgers faculty, is a fine idea, but promises nowhere near the same transformative power. Cross-listed classes and shared technology does not add up to a great university.

It’s no secret Camdenites feel disconnected from Raritan’s banks. “[W]e’re not really affiliated with New Brunswick to begin with,” one student said in a Rutgers-Camden’s Gleaner story on Charter Day celebrations. “[P]eople say that if you’re from New Brunswick, you’re part of Rutgers,” said another, and “if not, then you’re not from Rutgers.” To celebrate New Brunswick’s birthday in Camden is like holding a royal wedding party on the Falkland Islands.

And then there’s Camden. As one of the first to live in the dorms that debuted in 1986, I was part of an experiment to see if students would actually live in the city. We did, and prospered there. We shopped at the Campbell’s store, visited Walt Whitman’s house, and skateboarded under the Ben Franklin Bridge. We got a world-class education, but Camden’s appeal goes well beyond classrooms.

Some see Camden ‘crumbling into non-existence,’ post-Rutgers, as one anti-merger quips on Facebook. (“Rutgers Leaves, Camden Bleeds” reads another sign.) Evidence on the ground tells a different story. Cooper University Hospital’s enhanced status and Rowan’s expansion already has tangible effects, all blocks away from Rutgers. A University of South Jersey could play a greater role revitalizing Camden.

What’s in a name? Go outside the Garden State and mention you’re a Rutgers alum, and chances are you will experience campus confusion. “So, how did you like living in New Brunswick?” someone inevitably asks. Or talk about one of the many colleges clustered around the Raritan River. Perhaps we should follow in Armitage’s footsteps and see where it leads us, whichever the name. One thing is for sure: this Norcross guy should pay for a food court and a really big student center.

Daniel Nester (Rutgers-Camden 1991), is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

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“The True Spirit of American Rock,” by Peter Buck, October 1984 issue of Record.

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The October 1984 issue of Record magazine featured an article by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck called “The True Spirit of American Rock.”

Back in those days, R.E.M. didn’t want for press—there were reviews and profiles in just about every issue of every rock magazine around this time. This article was different. It was someone from R.E.M. talking about what mattered about music, about “the alternative scene,” as he called it.

“Music simply doesn’t mean that much to most of the people who buy records. I’m 27 and I own one piece of furniture, a ratty old couch given to me out of pity by R.E.M.’s manager, Jefferson Holt. I’m sure there are people who’d be shocked by the way I live, just as I’m shocked when I got to someone’s house and see nothing but John Denver, Barry Manilow, and Chicago records. How could they listen to that? Well they don’t. That’s their version of my crummy couch.”

This article affected me deeply, in one of those ways it’s hard to explain because I was 16 and you’re not 16 forever and you can’t care about things like records and rock music as much as you were 16 forever. Along with providing a list of bands to check out next trip to the record store—dB’s, Minutemen, Mission of Burma—Buck’s article helped me adopt a live-and-let-live credo about non-record nerds, and also to content with being “moved by music made by real people for real reasons.”

I’m writing about Negative Capability and R.E.M. for my book and how loving this article helped me to not worry about having everything by a band or an encyclopedic knowledge about a band, that I could just love music. I lost the magazine in the move upstate, but bought the issue off of eBay. Here it is, scanned in its two pages, and made into a PDF.

 

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The Amy Lemmon blog tour interview

2014-07-25 15.18.56A few days ago, poet and old friend Amy Lemmon invited me to be part of her week-long blog tour, and, once I understood what it meant, I accepted. I’m in a bit of a fog these days, what with it being summer, the wife and girls on a trip, and a recent binge of Queen + Adam Lambert concerts I’ve taken in over the past weeks. The blog tour means I answer questions about the most fascinating subject in my life, which is me. So here goes. I include Amy’s bio at the end of this post, but I just want to make a special plug for her book ABBA: The Poems, which she co-write with another fabulous poet, Denise Duhamel. Those poems rock in a way only collaboratively written poems about a Swedish pop band can.

On with the interview.

1. What am I currently working on? 

I’ve been tidying up some essays and memoir pieces, some of which will appear in some form in Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Grief, Making Out in Church, and Other Unlearnable Subjects, due next year from 99: The Press. It’s my longest book to date–perhaps too long, which means I’ve been going through the manuscript with a laser-like focus that’s maddening and exciting at the same time.

There’s another, much freakier book I’ve been working on, a collection of 1,000 aphorisms, still untitled. I’ll probably end up publishing that myself.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s a very counter-intuitive question, if you ask me. If anything, I feel as if I am trying to find my traditions, people who are related to me writing-wise. In that sense I am very much under the spell of T.S. Eliot, whose essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” I read when I was 20 years old, shelving books at the Rutgers-Camden library. As far as nonfiction writing is concerned, I am trying to be more like others, or to connect and emulate with writers I love: Joan Didion, Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Chuck Klosterman, Elif Batumen, Gregory Wolfe, James Baldwin, Katie Roiphe, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Sean H. Doyle, Emily Gould, Phillip Lopate, Wayne Koestenbaum, bell hooks, Joyce Maynard, Daphne Merkin, Nick Flynn, Stephen Elliott, Dave Hickey, If I could touch the hem of any of their writing garments, I would be ever so happy. But here’s the thing: I don’t write like any of them. I think I’m more in line–and keep in mind this is all delusional ambition–with writers like Nora Ephron, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, If I bring anything to the table, it has to do with the specifics of my experience and passions. Growing up as a blue collar Catholic in New Jersey informs everything I do and write.

3. How does my writing/creative process work?

I’m not really sure. It might begin on pieces of paper in notebooks or scraps of paper, a blog post or tweet, or grow out of some obsession I have or ideas I can’t get out of my head. One thing is for sure: it’s all about my ass in a chair and my hands on one of my old IBM Model M keyboards.

I don’t write for hours on end–we have two daughters who need attention, attention I want to give–and so it’s more of a structured, scheduled activity. I’m OK with that–without some schedule, I go a little nuts.

More about Amy Lemmon below. Check out her website, Saint Nobody, here.

 

Amy LemmonAmy Lemmon is the author of two poetry collections—Fine Motor (Sow’s Ear Poetry Review Press, 2008) and Saint Nobody (Red Hen Press, 2009)—and co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of the chapbooks ABBA: The Poems (Coconut Books, 2010) and Enjoy Hot or Iced: Poems in Conversation and a Conversation (Slapering Hol Press, 2011). Her poems and essays have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2013, Rolling Stone, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Court Green, The Journal, Marginalia, and many other magazines and anthologies. Awards include a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, the Elliston Poetry Prize, the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Prize, and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, West Chester Poetry Conference, and Antioch Writers’ Workshop. She is Professor of English at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, adviser to FIT Words: The Club for Writers, and Poetry Editor of the online literary magazine Ducts.org. Amy lives in Astoria, Queens, with her two children.

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New Queen-themed headers for my website. Because Queen.

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Queen - Sheer Heart Attack - Front

 

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Queen - A Day at the Races

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Queen - News of the World

 

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Freddie Mercury in 1981 issue of Playgirl!

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I have a Freddie Mercury search on eBay, and up popped this August 1981 issue of Playgirl magazine. “PLAYGIRL Aug 1981 Ted Nugent DAVID BOWIE Freddie Mercury SPRINGSTEEN David Byrne” was the title of the listing.

From the description:

10 SEXIEST ROCKERS photo article includes BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, PAUL STANLEY, THE POLICE, DAVID BOWIE, DAVID LEE ROTH, DAVID BYRNE, FREDDIE MERCURY, TED NUGENT more.

Nude photo layout of hot MIDDLE AGE MEN.

All I could think of was Freddie Mercury made a sexiest rocker list? Whoah.

So I did it: I bought a back-issue of Playgirl magazine for ten bucks because it mentions Freddie Mercury.

Would it be as good as another eBay purchase, 16 magazine’s “Hunk of the Month”?

Not really. It’s just a little mention of Freddie, shirtless. The copy is blah.

For those of you who took my clickbait headline: I apologize.

At any rate, as a public service to fans of all those featured–Ted Nugent, David Byrne, David Bowie, Rod Stewart,  I give you, my high-res scans of HOT ROCKERS!

 

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