Teaching Cruelty

Caveat: This essay was written in 2004, a year and a half after I graduated from the M.A. program in English at the University of Maine. As I recall, it took me a year and a half to contextualize my experience in such a way that I didn't simply rant in broken half-sentences when I tried to write about it.
The essay was up on my web site until late 2006, when I took it down because I believed my perspective on the subject matter was too emotional and too personal. Since then, I've logged about three requests a month for the page, which is significant. So, I'm offering it here again, against my better judgment, in the hope it's of help to you. I still mean just about every word of it.

Roughly a year into my master's program at the University of Maine, a professor I knew very little invited me to write a conservative critique of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. I nearly laughed in her face, but I managed to gather my composure enough to inform her that I wouldn't have any idea how to begin such a task and would, furthermore, find it distasteful in the extreme. It was then that I realized part of the reason why I had been marginalized by the department. They all thought themselves liberal and believed I was not.

Mind you, I didn't come by that conclusion without evidence. One of my first office mates was a conservative Christian with whom I had a few interesting debates the summer I began my studies at U of M. Shortly after I met him, I met a venomous young woman and fellow graduate student who called him horrible names. I defended him, believing that her behavior was unbecoming a member of the academy, in the hope that my defense might foster a more equitable academic environment for persons of all religious and political persuasions.

Not too long after that, I was the new target of her venom. At the same time, I began to discover the English department's graduate coordinator had been duplicitous with me about the content of the program when she encouraged me to apply, likely because I was graduating with my B.A. from the same university where she had earned her Ph.D. When I approached another faculty member about the venomous young woman and the substantial differences between the education I had been promised and the education I was receiving, that faculty member said, “Well, if this is too hard for you, why don't you quit?”

Two months later, during a private conversation with one of the few faculty members in that department who was genuinely kind to me, I learned that the faculty of English at the University of Maine privately discusses those students in the graduate program it approves of and wishes to encourage and also discusses those students it disapproves of and hopes to squeeze out of the program. Apparently, I had fallen into the latter category.

Over the course of the next two years, I crumbled like a dry leaf. I could tell by the way certain faculty members avoided me, condescended to me, or shouted at me that I had no power to change their hearts and minds and no recourse for redress of the damage done to my academic career by having been promised one thing and given another. After a while I couldn't even approach these matters without tears, and I was already terrified of losing whatever letters of recommendation were left to me, so I became emotionally vulnerable and hyper-conciliatory in my interactions with professors. So toward the end of my time at the University of Maine, I sought counseling so that I could bring myself to get up in the morning and go to class.

At the same time, my fellow graduate students began to smell blood in the water, and I was accused of everything from cultural intolerance for asking that a Chinese office mate stop eating at my desk to prudishness for telling a married student that I thought his behavior with the young, single women in the department was both dishonorable and lewd. And while this was going on, those few students who had not yet begun to circle with the rest were telling me that I had made too much of my concerns and needed to learn to "jump through the hoops" like everyone else. By the time the counseling started, many of my fellow graduate students were openly ostracizing me in such a way that I could not help but see I was being ostracized, so I cleaned out my desk a month before I finished the program and started meeting with my students at the library when they needed my help.

I graduated from the University of Maine in May 2003, and I think on that graduation as one of the great victories of my life. But I am ruined for the academy now; the very idea that I might find myself in such a situation again and dependent upon the good will of small people leaves me furious and sick to my stomach. Beyond that, I am certain I could not exist in an environment where my future and the future of my students depended on our political proclivities and how well we parroted the party line, liberal or conservative. However, it should be noted that my professors were not liberal when they whitewashed my concerns with erroneous and damaging assumptions about my character, and they were not liberal when they hid behind the University of Maine's skirts and took potshots at my education. They were cruel, and their behavior was beneath the dignity they were supposed to have.

Moreover, they aren't alone. This manner of cruelty is prevalent in every corner of the academy. It is as if a collective sense of entitlement has calcified the egos of many academics into weapons they wield in one of two ways; either the student is forced to become like the teacher, or the student's career is beaten to death. Furthermore, when faculty members stonewall and scapegoat selected students, other students adopt the same behaviors so as to avoid becoming targets themselves and in so doing become just like the professors whose favor they have curried. Ultimately this conduct creates a culture where no original thinking can happen, a culture where advancement is contingent upon complicity, a culture just as evil as its right-wing counterpart.

This was the paradigm most of my graduate professors exemplified and many of my fellow graduate students adopted over the course of the two years I had the considerable misfortune to spend with them. I confess I am worried about the lives they'll touch and the culture they'll shape as they go forward in their careers. Knowledge is power, and that power is destructive in the hands of people who wield it to quash dissent.

11/2004 - Revised 06/2010