Thursday, December 6, 2012

Connections: Wallflowers, Getting Noticed, and the Myth of Meritocracy

As a trained academic, I see connections everywhere. My problem, as a writer, is that I often have trouble explaining these connections to people, and instead I tell stories. (BACK IN THE DAY, Virginia Woolf pointed out that this kind of inductive approach is a particularly female way of thinking and writing, and that our society favors what she then-called "masculine" ways of writing. But NOWADAYS, we're "not allowed" to say that there are female and male ways of writing. More on that in a future post.)

Sometimes we call people who "see connections everywhere" paranoid, especially if they don't believe in God. And Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, may she rest in peace, wrote about this in a brilliant essay that later became a book, and that book was the first thing I read in graduate school. Here's a review of the book that provides a pretty good summary. The chapter that grew out of the essay (that's how academics roll, by the way) was called "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You." (Thanks to Amy, I've been thinking a lot about which writers inspire me, and I should add Sedgwick to the list.)

Sedgwick essentially argues that academia is broken because everyone who writes for academic audiences is so terrified and territorial--so anxious about how people will respond to their work, or about making sure that they say it first--that they're stuck in a feedback loop of paranoia. When I was in my PhD colloquium, I, as a very competitive person who hates competition, really responded to this idea. Can't we all just get along? I wondered. Why can't we agree and disagree respectfully? What ever happened to listening?

Sedgwick called it. The book was published in 2002. But ask any junior faculty or anyone trying to get a job if anything has changed. The rat race continues, and it is kill or be killed out there. For every job in an English department, as many as 500 people apply for it. English academics were living in a recession way before 2008. They've been living in a recession since the 90s, or maybe even before that (this is where I apologize for not knowing everything about a topic before presuming to write about it. That's paranoid writing.)

My PhD colloquium professor was Frances Ferguson.* Another essay she showed us, by the superstar-famous-deconstructionist-theorist Paul DeMan, is called "Blindness and Insight," from the book of the same name. DeMan taught at Yale, and I have been noticing lately how much the Yale English Department influenced my thinking (but not in the ways for which the Yale English Department is notorious in academic circles). Let me just say, for those who are familiar with these writers, that I was assigned to read "Tradition and the Individual Talent" by T.S. Eliot at least 5 times, and I took a class with Harold Bloom. And I had a lot of really amazing conversations with a grad student who taught me twice about Eliot and Bloom. I odn't know what ever happened to that grad student. DeMan was writing in dialogue with both of these men, and his argument, if I may attempt to summarize, is that, in the production of knowledge, you have to essentially take on an attitude of blindness in order to have an insight. In other words,  you have to ignore your predecessors in order to have a good idea.

I told Frances at the time that I really liked the way that this essay treated academic knowledge in the same way as scientific discoveries. The knowledge is out there, and, in some ways, the point is to find it, not to take credit for finding it. (My scientist- and medical-academic friends and family members will attest that this is a very Polyannaish characterization of scientific research.) Everyone wants credit. It's human to want credit. That's what Sedgwick argues--if we paid a little bit more attention to ourselves as feeling human beings (this also goes by the name of psychology or "affect studies"), we might actually become more generous and less paranoid as readers, as writers, and as critics.

Footnote* about Frances Ferguson: In academia, you're supposed to give credit to everyone who gave you your ideas. Frances Ferguson is a celebrity in academic circles, and I am fortunate because of my schooling to have worked with a lot of people who are celebrities-in-academic-circles. Outside academia, a lot of people view mentioning these people by name as "name-dropping." And even within academia, you're not supposed to name-drop until you get more established, because it is viewed as trying too hard, or as relying on your connections instead of on your merit.

So that was a long introduction to this post, which is about why we still believe in merit when really a great deal of getting ahead in this country happens through connections. A very good friend of mine from my PhD cohort (we call them that because we all start at the same time, but finish at different times) and I have been talking about my previous post about my not-my-brother-in-law Tim Kreider. My friend--let's just call him Jim--and I both had this feeling when we were in our early 20s (we were born a month apart) that if we wanted to be writers, we would have to try to sell ourselves, and that is not in our natures. We are wallflowers.

I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time this summer. If that book had come out just one year earlier, it could have made a big difference to me when I was 18. In that book, the main character is a freshman in high school and a wallflower--someone who is secretly awesome, but goes about his business being weird and different, until some seniors notice him and take him under their collective wings.

That sort of thing happened to me when I was in high school. I was a bit of an outcast, a little bit weird, a mis-fit, and the theater teachers and some other teachers were super kind to me. Of course, then I got called a teacher's pet. I am always trying to tell my students that the kids that they call teacher's pets, or whatever they call them now (in grad school we called the person who talks too much in seminars "that guy") are secretly insecure and lonely.

There is this great essay by David Bromwich (who was at Yale when I was there, but with whom I never took a class) called "American Psychosis." It talks about how American mis-fits (like Flannery O'Connor's serial killer "The Misfit" in "A Good Man is Hard to Find") are the dopplegangers of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The flip side of self-reliance is feeling like an outcast.

I love the part of the essay that analyzes the O'Connor short story. I really want to go back and reread the part about the Transcendentalists, because at the time I'm pretty sure I didn't get it. I read it in a reading group on Transcendentalism that I formed with Jim and a bunch of other Americanists. Jim and I were people who talked a lot in seminars, and we always worried, confidentially with each other and our mutual love, my best friend and his wife, about being "that guy."

Jim and I are both paranoid about trying to get noticed. We have ideas, but we want people to notice our ideas without the indignity of having to "sell ourselves." And this is the real American Psychosis, if you ask me. We get sold this idea that if you just work hard enough, you'll get noticed and appreciated. But you shouldn't ever look like you're trying. It's just like my parents always told me: you're pretty, but don't flaunt it. Eventually someone will ask you to dance. But waiting for someone to notice you is a sad game. American literature is littered with the corpses of people who tried, in their own ways, to get noticed--Quentin Compson, Lily Bart, Jay Gatsby, Bigger Thomas, Willie Loman, Walter Lee Younger. Every single one of those men (and did you notice that they're mostly men?) went a little bit crazy because they were so angry at not getting noticed, not getting the girl. As Willie Loman said, right before he died, "Attention must be paid!" Then there are the ones who decided that it was better to disappear than to risk getting noticed: Edna Pontellier, Isabel Archer, Antonia, The Ex-Colored Man, [the] Invisible Man, Helga Crane, Janie Crawford, Lutie Johnson, Annie Johnson in Imitation of Life, Norman Maine in A Star is Born, everyone in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. (Did you notice that they're mostly women and people of color (and one actor)?)

"Getting noticed" is just not how it really works in academia. In academia, if you want to get noticed, you have to somehow work your way to the top of that stack of 500 resumes. And the easiest way to do it--by far--is to have connections. I know from my friends in the arts that it's very much the same way in pretty much every art field. I often sit back and marvel at how many people I knew personally in college are now working artists. And, to me, it's not a coincidence that we all went to Yale, and built up our networks there. It's considered mean or unfair to say that people made it to where they are because they're well-connected. But the point I'm trying to make is that for every brilliant, talented celebrity, there are at least ten equally brilliant, equally talented people toiling away in anonymity.

Sociologists and educators call connectedness "social capital." They recognize that a big way that people get ahead in life is by having connections, and this is not something that shows up in poverty statistics. People living in poverty have no connections. And, often, unfortunately, their teachers also don't have connections. I've tried to share my connections with my students, but I feel awkward and sad about it because it sometimes feels like bragging. I know famous people. When I showed my students my friend Scout Tufankjian's book, a couple of weeks after I had introduced them to my two best friends from college, both working writers, they asked me what I was doing at their school. With all these famous friends, why are you just a teacher?

I have been teaching my students--the honors juniors--about social capital. I have offered to introduce them to all of my friends who are now working in the fields that they want to work in. Because that is how it happens. My students still believe in the myth of merit, and I think, in some ways, so do a lot of my grad school friends, and my family.

One problem we have in academia is that we keep fighting over what is the one right way to organize all of these connections. Marxism? Deconstruction? Affect? God? Magic? Lauren B. gets it right, because she has been telling me for years that people are complicated. There is no one way to explain a person. And a person, and her story, are sometimes a good way to try to explain how things work. I'm working on a piece right now about James Baldwin and Joan Didion and using oneself as a case study. (I'm calling it WWJB/JDD?) When I tell people my story, and my family's story, they say "wow, you have an impressive family. You all must have worked very hard." We did all work very, very hard. But we also had a lot of help.

The myth of American meritocracy is that a kid on the South Side of Chicago and someone like me start out in the same place, that we both have a shot at going to Yale, and hard work is the difference between us. (I love Paul Tough's work because of how he tries to shatter this myth.) And that's just a lie, as I've noted here and here. It's true that there are people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. My grandfather, born in the Bronx, did. My mother, born in the boondocks of Thailand, did, too. But we were talking over Thanksgiving about how even they had help--my grandpa's mother taught him the value of a good education. My mom's oldest sister helped her through junior college and medical school. Many, many families on the south and west sides of Chicago don't have access to this kind of capital: the knowledge that education really does matter, the means to give their children a better life. That is why the era of No Child Left Behind is so cruel. We pretend--and my students believe--that hard work and dedication and perseverance will get them somewhere. But, without connections, without somehow getting lucky, or getting noticed, all that hard work is statistically likely to land them in a two-year college, at best. Social capital is built over generations. The cruelest ideology in education is the phrase "beating the odds." Why can't we work on changing the odds instead of asking teachers and children to try to play and win a game that is rigged against them?

*Footnote about footnotes: I love writing footnotes, as anyone who has read my academic writing will attest, and I love hyperlinks, as anyone who reads this blog knows, and I use parentheses a lot. It's because I always want to connect something else to what I'm talking about. There's an essay in this about gothic fiction, historicism, and nested narratives. But I digress. My husband is always trying to remind me to "get back to the original story."