I was listening to Fresh Air this past week, and Terry Gross was interviewing Julie Klausner, a comedian who writes and directs that show Difficult People. I’ve never heard of the show or Klausner, but it was an interesting interview. One question Gross asked was about when Klausner thinks it’s okay to make a joke, about how Klausner makes that decision. Here’s Klausner’s response:
It’s tough, because I want to be a good guy. … I want to be loved by absolutely everyone, even though it’s shocking to me that I’m loved by anyone — that’s something I discuss at length with my therapist. But the truth of it is that I want to be the person that knows when it’s OK to make fun of someone because they’re more powerful than you, and that’s where I thought I was coming from, and I learned that that is not necessarily how people see it. I have no problem with the insult or the attack. I don’t want to be a bully. I want to be a vigilante, I guess.
I like that ending about being a vigilante, not a bully. I was thinking about that with teaching as I’ve been in opening meetings as we start a new school year. It’s especially on my mind as we talk about how we treat LGBTQ students and create safe spaces for a variety of students who don’t fit the norm where I teach. I heard people are caring and compassionate and want to give everyone the room to find out who they are. I also heard people who want to use what they see to be the truth to beat other people down, to be bullies, essentially.
I’ve argued rather consistently that the point of literature and teaching literature is subversion. Literature calls into questions the dominant narratives of its time and our time, and I not only don’t resist those questions, I seek them out and encourage students to do the same. Essentially, as a teacher, I want to be a vigilante. I want to speak for those characters and authors and students who aren’t able, for a wide variety of reasons, to speak up for themselves. I want to speak against the bullies.
One of my colleagues was talking about a professor he had (I think; it might have been a co-worker or a department chair, but I think it was a professor) who said, “You’re not doing your job is twenty percent of your class doesn’t think you’re a son of a bitch.” I understand the sentiment, in that we should challenge our students, but I don’t agree with the idea that students should perceive me as a son of a bitch. I can be challenging and supportive at the same, and I should be. A son of a bitch makes me think of being a bully, someone who exercises his or her power simply because he or she can.
Professors should want their students to succeed, should be on their side, helping them to improve. We should be vigilantes, going after the power and privilege that keeps students from succeeding. When students don’t do the work or don’t have the ability to perform at the level we should expect and demand, they should not pass our classes. That’s justice, though, as it’s simply our allowing students to receive the consequences of their actions or the realities of the world.
Bullies don’t seek justice; they seek to abuse those beneath them, to make them suffer for no good reason, not for a just reason. They attack the powerless, not those who can defend themselves. Every year, I take students to the Sigma Tau Delta (English honor society) convention, where students present their critical and creative works. One year, a student had written a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, using Jacques Derrida’s theories about language. The professor moderating the session started grilling the student on his understanding of Derrida. After a few minutes, he must have realized what he was doing and said, “I wrote on my dissertation on Derrida. I shouldn’t expect you to have that same level of understanding.” He was on the verge of being a bully before he realized what he was doing. He didn’t expect the student to rise to the level of an excellent student, at first; he expected the student to be on his level, a level the student had no chance of reading at that point in his academic career. Thankfully, he caught himself and resolved the situation in a respectful manner.
Those of us who are professors are in positions of power; we have to admit that. The question, then, becomes whether or not we’ll use that power for good or ill. We can be bullies and cause our students to fear us and everything we hold dear, or we can be vigilantes, fighting for our students and their learning, teaching them to push back against the power and privilege that pushes them down. I know which one I’m choosing.