University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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(Tenured Radical)

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Fisking Rhonda Garelick

An Op/Ed piece in today’s New York Times helps me convey what I’m trying to convey in University Diaries about teaching in contemporary American humanities classrooms.

Rhonda Garelick, a professor of French and Italian, begins by reviewing the plot of the Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile. Women think we’ve come so far from those repressed bygone days, she tut-tuts; but “the troubling 1950’s may not be quite the quaint relic we think they are.”

Based on the disturbing in-class behaviors of many of her female students - behaviors which include dividing women characters in films into “good” and “bad” people (just the way, Garelick writes, the President divides the world into countries which are “with us” and “with the terrorists” - or, I guess, the way audience members might describe the Aileen Wurnos character in the film Monster as “bad” as opposed to “good”), sometimes holding their hands over their mouths when they speak, and sometimes interrupting themselves when it seems to them that they’re not really making an intelligent point - Garelick concludes that today’s college women are just as fearful and unliberated as those ‘fifties girls.

For after all, “when I call them on this” - that is, when Garelick says to a woman student who interrupts herself or who puts her hands in front of her face that she’s displaying “undermining behavior” which reveals that she does not understand “the political ramifications” of her actions - the students look “surprised.”

Garelick thinks they look surprised because someone is being bold enough to ask them to “read their own sexual politics.” But the students are surprised because they are not accustomed to this level of rudeness from strangers. Their mothers of course have been annoying them for years about this or that personal habit - hands in front of the mouth while talking, toying with your hair at the dinner table - but this is the first time a comparative stranger has taken it upon herself to get on their case.

Garelick believes she knows why a young woman might talk with her hands in front of her mouth - it’s political. But maybe she’s wrong. Maybe this young woman’s next class is Intro Psych, and when she puts her hands in front of her mouth her professor in that course says to her, “You put your hands in front of your mouth because you have unresolved oral issues.”

Garelick concludes by complaining that her “attempts to introduce contemporary politics into classroom discussions meet with blank stares.” When she touches on the subject of the baleful Iraqi incursion, she encounters “mostly silence,” which she interprets as “a mix of paralysis and anxiety.” Students resist “wakeful political literacy,” she generously concludes, because “they drink from the same pool of Lethe we all do.”

But her political discourse in her French and Italian classes is met with stares because when students sign up for French and Italian literature they do not expect to spend lots of class time talking about troop levels in Baghdad. Garelick’s students feel, I suspect, neither “paralysis” nor “anxiety” (she misreads them in this way because she has an unevolved therapeutic mentality) - rather, they feel boredom and embarrassment that a woman with a Ph.D. in literature is lecturing them on contemporary geopolitics. They wonder when they are going to get around to reading Madame Bovary.