Thursday, October 25, 2007

English: It's Hot

The text from tonight's talk, slightly revised.

Last spring, at the end of my second year at [BRU], Sigma Tau Delta gave me the biggest honor of my young teaching career: your Outstanding Teacher Award. I can honestly tell you I was walking on air for days after the announcement. I was actually, briefly, speechless. And those of you who know me, know that rendering me speechless is no mean feat.

Around the same time as this announcement, I received another honor—one less suitable for the awards section of my cv, but one no less exciting in its own way. I got my first RateMyProfessors-dot-com chili pepper.

For those few of you not deeply embroiled in the steamy world of tweed, chalk dust, lectures on manuscripts, word etymologies and post-colonial theory, Rate My Professors is a popular website where students can anonymously rate faculty members on their difficulty, clarity, helpfulness, and interest level. And their hotness. It’s the last one that gets a chili pepper. And last semester, one student (and now a tiny handful of others) have publicly though anonymously called me “hot.”

Now I’m not letting this go to my head that four out of the several hundred students I’ve taught in my career have thought me “hot.”

In fact, a couple of years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education, academia’s newspaper, ran a column on this phenomenon, and the columnist, expressed some concern that his own chili pepper was not a good sign—that it in fact undermined the good reports he was getting on his student teacher evaluations. He cited some research that suggested that students had a higher opinion of faculty members who were physically more attractive, with no necessary regard for the actual skill of their teaching...that he wasn’t really a good teacher, he just had (in his words) nice buns. So earning my first chili pepper at the same time as I earned the Sigma Tau Delta honor got me thinking…maybe I’m just a pretty face.

In fact, an inordinate number of faculty members in the English department have chili peppers next to their names on RateMyProfessors. And, at the same time, faculty in this department have been honored over and over again, at the college and university level, as outstanding teachers. Oooh, I know! Maybe we’re just a whole department of supermodels posing seductively behind our critical editions.

But let’s be serious…while I do think we are a comely bunch, I don’t have any illusions that the student body has suddenly gone ga-ga for a bunch of mildly obsessive- compulsive language addicts.

What’s more, soon after that Chronicle of Higher Ed column came out, I [had occasion to meet] that columnist, and while he was good-looking enough, I guess, he certainly wasn’t all that. He looked to me like virtually any late-thirty something, balding, dad of four. So something just wasn’t adding up. Where were these chili peppers coming from? What did they mean?

Another theory. In this summer’s issue of The American Scholar, the journal published by Phi Beta Kappa, William Deresiewicz takes up the oddly prevalent representation of professors, especially English professors, having affairs with their undergrads, despite the fact that they are represented as washed up, creatively and literally sterile, and feeding off of the vitality of their students. The stereotype is, in my experience wrong on so many levels, not only because these affairs happen so rarely.

He traces that representation back to a kind of cultural American panic about sexual exploitation, and the curious mixture of envy and fear produced in the average American consumer of pop culture. The idea is that our proximity as professors to you as beautiful young things at the peak of your attractiveness must inspire only one emotion: lust. Nothing inspiring, protective, irksome, angry, or merely friendly. Just pure animal lust.

Instead, Deresiewicz argues, there’s something different altogether going on, and while it’s not physical attraction (because really, how could we professors compete with you beautiful young things?), but it is eros. He goes back to the image of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. He writes: “We are all ‘pregnant in soul,’ Socrates tells his companions, and we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world.”

The kind of sex that happens in the classroom, then, is brain sex, a meeting of the minds stimulated by the proximity not of bodies, but of ideas, and an enthusiasm, even a craving, for those ideas.

OK. I’ll buy that. But I don’t think that’s the whole picture.

Instead I have a different theory, one that’s rooted in the field of literature, one that probably explains why you are in this room, and why you plan to finish your university careers with an English degree. It’s not that English professors are hot. It’s that English is hot.

The English department had for several years a motto contest, and the slogan winner was emblazoned on the department’s home page. In the contest’s most recent incarnation one of the finalists was “English: That’s Hot”--attributed (perhaps erroneously) to the immortal Paris Hilton.

So maybe we’re not supermodels…maybe we’re just all celebutantes.

The motto that won came instead from Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Slightly different ring than “English: That’s Hot” to which I say: Tomayto, Tomahto. You say blahblah axe blahblah frozen sea within us, I simplify and say: hot.

Seriously: why do bajillions of young teenage girls and more than a handful of teenage boys for that matter, get swept up in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I’m guessing it’s not a yearning for the strict moral code of a bygone era. I’m guessing it’s not even the witty repartee between the heroines and their gruff paramours. Instead I’m guessing it’s the rolling boil of the thinly veiled chemistry between its lovers, the promise that just beyond the last pages of those books, the “Reader I married him” of Jane Eyre, there’s a jello-kneed insinuation of what happened very soon after she married him.

Or to get a little less prim, We could note that Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, or Medea, those magisterial Greek tragedies, were written to be performed at the City Dionysia, a ritual festival honoring the god of wine, revelry and debauchery.

Or we can talk about the frozen sea inside the millions of readers of romance novels in this country, a genre that critics like Janice Radway have shown us is one that tells us tons about readership, women’s discourses and erotics.

And while I’m not teaching the literary stylings of Judith Krantz and Danielle Steele in my classes, I have been known to teach a book that will get a reader a little hot under the collar. Even Shakespeare, that bastion of respectability, has more than his share of references to pretty explicit sex. It’s Othello, for goodness sakes, that give us the lovely image of “The beast with two backs.”

From my own teaching, I can talk about that gorgeous moment in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando when the author has no other way to express the pure indescribable love that Lady Orlando and Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine have for one another than to leave half a page blank “filled to repletion” with the inexpressible. Of perhaps you’ll take Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, whose narrator is so smitten by her lover that she finds even medical textbook passages to be excruciatingly sexy. Or Jay Gatsby finally consummating his love with Daisy Buchanan, or Jake Barnes not consummating his love for Brett Ashley. Or. Or. Or. Or.

Or maybe you have your own moment, a book that you cracked open and realized with a tingle that this. book. was. sexy. Perhaps it was tinged with romance, perhaps it was thick with tension, perhaps it was taboo.

For me, it came my freshman year of college, in a drama class where I read Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, a play chock full of wild moments in barns, trains, and public parks, which some of you in the room who have read that play in my classes, will no doubt recall. And while actually, a lot of those moments are revealed to be hollow, unsatisfying thrills, the very idea that reading them meant to me breaking out of a mold, being something, experiencing something that I had never experienced, was exhilarating and frightening. That Something-I-Had-Never-Experienced wasn’t necessarily sex, per se, and even now I’m not sure I could put my finger on what it was, except for the idea of the vastly wide open horizon of possible experiences, pleasurable and painful alike.

And sure. Fine. It’s not all about sex, not by a mile. But even when it’s not about the things that go on behind closed doors, a great read and a great discussion about it can still set the pulse racing in ways that our reading bodies inevitably will interpret as love or love’s more biologically necessary cousin.

So back to my theory. While I have no empirical evidence to refute the correlation between perceived attractiveness and perceived good teaching, I’ll suggest that the causation works the other way around—that some people look attractive because the material they are teaching turns up the heat just a bit. And I think it’s more than just the brain sex that Deresiewicz describes in The American Scholar. I think it’s a lot more visceral than that.

So when you go back into the classroom tomorrow, clutching perhaps Lady Chatterly’s Lover, a book that was famously banned for its racy nature, or maybe even clutching Paradise Lost, which is racy in its own way, remind yourself that the gooey feeling you have has nothing to do with the professor. Rather, it’s this very book breaking up the frozen sea inside you. Or to put it another way: it’s hot.


abbagirl said...

brazilliant speech, professor! i'm sure you knocked 'em dead. i like how you weave literary analysis with personal observations and the lovely witticisms generated by our pop culture. they all make for an interesting speech.

congrats on the red hot chilli pepper!

JM said...

that's really good.

Sisyphus said...

Heh --- I love it!

(Personally, I think the secret is the clothes --- but whether yours, or Desdemona's handkerchief, or Darcy's greatcoat, I cannot say.) :)

Horace said...

I did wear the velvet pants of joy for the first time in public, and I must say, I think they're maybe the most comfortable pants I've ever worn. So maybe it's also the clothes.

undine said...

I like the talk. If I were Paris, I'd say "it's hot!"

Mel said...

what a great talk! your students are lucky.

YourFireAnt said...

Your quote from Socrates, that we are drawn to souls that teem with ideas that beg to be brought into the world, and your comment about the rolling boil of the thinly-veiled chemistry describe aptly what I have for years called "artist love" for lack of a better term.

It's what draws us to creative people [dancers, writers, rock stars, painters, sculptors, songwriters, poets, etc....] and what makes us go back again and again for more. We think, for example, that we've got a crush on the lead guitarist of Wilco but really it's 'artist love'; it's that electric razzle dazzle of slithery creative motion that pulls at us, that makes us open our hearts, that makes us want more, that causes our clothes to be all sweaty and damp afterwards.

Good speech.