On Making Sense (on the Page and in the Classroom): Thoughts on Class, Academia, and Communication, After Reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

I’ve been stuck in bed for the past two days, kept company by a congested face, cough drop wrappers, and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I love this book, and – as the case with all books I read and love – I feel compelled to sort out why I think it is so superb. The more I consider it, the more I realize it boils down to this – Gay is a bad (read: messy, contradictory, complicated, and committed) feminist in the best ways, but she is also a very special kind of thinker: an academic who is also a Good Writer. Good writing is, fundamentally, accessible. Accessibility is not the same as “dumbing down” or oversimplifying. Good writing makes concepts tangible, workable, applicable, and – most importantly – relevant and compelling. Gay’s prose does all of this, and does it extremely well. Essay after essay, I thought, “I need to assign this.” It is rare that I think this – much of what I read, research-wise, is too dense for most undergrads; for them, to encounter those texts is an exercise in frustration where they emerge feeling both angry and like they’ve been made to feel stupid. They’re not written for them, though – they’re written for professional academics, in the kind of language that is our stock-in-trade. These works are difficult, reliant on a battery of words that requires at least four semesters of graduate coursework (alongside dedicated, competent professors) to really grasp. Not a single soul in my Intro to Women’s Studies course has ever been jazzed by reading Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” But damn, do they love talking about performativity – after we spend a few classes parsing out what it means.

I was a first-generation student. I was the only one from my immediate family to finish college (dad started, at the local community college with the goal of becoming a history teacher, but bailed after a couple semesters to take a job at the hardware store). I was the only one in the entirety of my extended family to do graduate work. I now teach mostly first-generation students, and I wouldn’t want it any other way – they tend to lack the sense of entitlement I’ve often encountered in more privileged students. I’m more comfortable around folks from poor and working-class backgrounds, anyway; I understand the situations we sometimes find ourselves in – strapped for cash, working two jobs, trying to find last minute childcare, dealing with shitty domestic situations – and how they can complicate academic work. I understand the importance of working around these situations, and know that I would have never made it through college without professors that helped me out in similar ways – extending deadlines, letting me take exams during office hours, and so on. There’s another important component to working with first-gen students, and that has to do with making ideas accessible and resonant with their own experiences. We can’t use the conceptual shorthand we’ve been forced to master throughout our grad educations in the classroom. We can’t assume a style of impersonal detachment as if we were taking a casual, touristic stroll through the marketplace of ideas. It’s not pedagogically effective, and it makes you seem unnecessarily condescending. Learning how to function well in college is intimidating enough, especially when you’ve had nothing – no college prep courses, no parental tales of their golden university years, no academic summer camps, no older siblings or friends to give you advice on how to acclimate and make it through – to realistically prepare you for the expectations you now face. We don’t need to compound that through unnecessary abstraction. I’m not saying we should all be exceptionally nurturing – an expectation often unfairly placed on female profs, anyhow – but we do need to be accountable to making sense, to speaking in a way our students can grasp.

The problem is, there’s not much in our graduate educations that helps us do this. Mariarosa Dellacosta and Selma James, in their brilliant Marxist-feminist masterwork The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, in a section entitled “The Class Struggle in Education,” write that for working-class folks – kids, particularly – “there is always an awareness that school is in some way setting them against their parents and their peers.” In other words, we have been taught that education is a mechanism of class mobility – at least, ostensibly – and intuitively understand that it is molded by deeply bourgeois ways of knowing and being. We are skeptical of this, but also institutionally coerced into mimicking these ways of knowing and being. Sometimes, this process is seductive. Other times, it is anxiety-ridden. Often, it is both.

Case in point: I had the good fortune of going through a Ph.D. program deeply invested in leftist/radical political thought, committed in very real ways to diversity, and taught by faculty that were pretty stellar, across the board. For about three years I read, almost exclusively, contemporary critical theory (all the most fashionable stuff – biopolitics, posthumanism, postleftism, decoloniality, affect studies, DeleuzeDeleuzeDeleuze). Debated hotly with brilliant friends. Wrote my ass off. Began publishing. Finished my degree.

Just before my defense, I returned to my childhood home for the holidays, toting a copy of the edited volume my very first article was in. I handed it to my mom, asked her to read it. She tried – it took months. Other essays came out. I’d send them along to my brothers. Same story, although my younger brother did tell my mom he liked reading my stuff because he learned new words. I thought that was rad. But the take-away from all of this was that I now inhabited a mental space that was so distant from the rest of my family that we didn’t really know how to talk to each other. I couldn’t tell them what I thought, and I increasingly policed their talk in ways that must have been both infuriating and condescending.

Then I started teaching. My first semester, I had a student tell me “I think you’re too smart for us.” Translation: you don’t know how to talk to us. I got my teaching evaluations back, and many of the students mentioned my “intimidating vocabulary” (paraphrase: “sometimes, we have no idea what the hell she’s talking about”). I quickly realized that I had very little idea how to translate the concepts I was trying to teach to the students – mostly first-gen, from underserved backgrounds – that I worked with.

I have a close friend who is also a former student of mine. She thinks an awful lot about writing, rhetoric, and communication. We live near each other, and went on a camping trip together recently. Around the fire one night, she told me about how she would meet up before class with another student – let’s call her Jody – and talk over the material (mostly queer theory and trans studies stuff). Then they’d come to class, and Jody would often ask something along these lines: “okay, I think I get it, but can you give a concrete example?”

My friend said: “Hilary, every time she said that, we swore we saw your eye twitch a little.”

And it did, I’m sure it did. Because every time I got that question, I felt like a pedagogical failure. I was doing it again, I was falling into the language I worked so hard to learn in grad school, that I became so proficient at because I didn’t want anyone to doubt whether or not I deserved to be there. It was really hard to slip out of that kind of high-theory drag. It still is.

Around this time of eye-twitching, I had another friend – let’s call him Jack – that would periodically send me drafts of writing projects. I would begin proofing them with every intention of providing useful, provocative commentary. Then I would stop editing. Then I would stop reading the piece altogether, because the only thing I had to say, really, was that he should rewrite the whole damn thing. The ideas were good, but the prose was torture. I was too polite, too concerned with not wanting to be a Bad Friend, and too insecure about my own judgments to say this, so I said nothing. He eventually stopped sending his writing to me. I was secretly relieved. I was becoming so frustrated by my own classroom difficulties that I couldn’t bear to see someone else on track towards becoming unnecessarily obtuse and rarefied in their communication style.

It wasn’t his fault, of course, not really – like I said, there isn’t much in most of our graduate educations that teaches us how to communicate effectively and clearly, especially to anything other than an audience of specialists. The trouble is, we then go into a profession where we speak to an audience of specialists only a few times a year, and an audience of, well, non-specialists almost every day. Some of us are lucky, and we end up with a composition-focused adviser or a program that goes out of its way to focus on effective pedagogy. Most of us aren’t that lucky. And the cycle continues: more tortuous writing, more bad communication, the propagation of a new generation of teacher-scholars poorly equipped to render difficult concepts accessible, especially to students from underserved backgrounds.

Sometimes, a book comes along that helps us bridge that pedagogical gap. Bad Feminist is one of those books.

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