Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marred by Politeness

My work takes me inside a lot of college classrooms, where I’m supposed to observe and gain insight into the lively Socratic give-and-take of American higher ed. Problem is, that hardly ever happens. In most of the classes I’ve observed, the rule seems to be that kids keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They’re pretty unshakable about their reticence, too. It makes me a little uncomfortable, sometimes, to be sitting in the back row of a classroom while some earnest but not very inspired prof is trying to draw his students into a discussion, only to be met with dead silence. It’s like one of those socially awkward moments, embarrassing for everyone, that you can only ride out and hope will end soon. Except some of these classes last for an hour and a half. That’s a lot of awkward.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes about rural life and other soft stuff on the New York Times editorial page (I was going to call him the house hayseed, but that’s too snotty) had a piece in yesterday’s paper about the hyper-polite students at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

He writes:

I sat in on four classes, which were marred only by politeness — the deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class.

Things always warmed up, but those first lingering notes of hesitation were something to behold. I tried to think of it as modesty, consideration for others and reluctance in the presence of a guest — from New York nonetheless. And yet I kept wondering just how such bright, personable students had become acculturated to their own silence.

He notices this habit of “self-negating silence” even slipping into his students’ writing, particularly the work of female students. “I can hear them,” he writes, “questioning the very nature of their perceptions, doubting the evidence of their senses, distrusting the clarity of their thoughts.”

I’m not sure why Klinkenborg makes a distinction between his male and female students on this point, because, as he points out, the problem of claiming authority to observe and comment is a basic one for just about any writer. “It’s a delicate thing,” he writes, “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

In some ways, professional writers have it easy, because if nothing else they can claim the authority conferred by the people who hire them, who accept their pitches, who pay them. If someone at The New York Times Book Review thinks my essay is good enough to buy, then who am I to argue? (Of course, I had to give myself permission to pitch the thing in the first place, but that’s a whole other story.) I’ve written about the most personal stuff in my essays, and it’s not always easy for me to set that stuff out for anyone to read. But what’s a little paradoxical is that the magazines that publish my highly personal work and spread it to newsstands and barbershops and library reading rooms for strangers to read, also provide me with a kind of institutional cover. A reader can think what he wants about me and my work, but he can’t change the fact that I was paid well for my writing and given the imprimatur of the Times or CondeNast or whoever.

Where it gets really hard for me to assert my authority to observe and comment is in less professional settings, like this blog. I suppose that’s another paradox. Because isn’t the Internet supposed to be empowering, isn’t it supposed to make citizen journalists or belle-letrists of us all? But I’ve had a hard time feeling at ease writing this blog, and part of the reason is that I have no template for how it’s supposed to read, and I have to operate without the cover of some publishing institution. So, even though this blog is read only by my friends and the people who love me and a few web-searching insomniacs mistakenly sent here by Google, and even though it’s just a speck in the great big ever-expanding blog universe, I end up feeling just as exposed writing here as I do writing for the largest-circulation newspapers and magazines.

In a way, that’s a problem of claiming authority, the same one Klinkenborg’s students face. Some of us are still “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

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