January 28, 2005

From Gerald R. Lucas


Is something that I obviously lack. Words that do not describe me are easy-going, nice, considerate, moderate, respectful, kind. I wish I knew why; instead of how I might like to be perceived, people generally see me as arrogant, rude, haughty, intimidating, and coarse, even though I (rarely) intend to be. Why am I like this? Why am I thinking about this? Well, three reasons: (1) a conversation I had with Dan, Monica, and Giles on Wednesday night; (2) an email I received this morning; and (3) some video footage of my teaching that I’m now editing. It didn’t take these unconnected but telling events to inform me of something about which I had no idea—I have a rich and varied history of pissing people off—but three in a row like this make me question my efficacy as a friend, an educator, and a human being.

Perhaps it starts my inability to smile very well. I know people with great smiles—even rude people, and that seems to determine much of how they are perceived. Having a bright face is a big step to being all those things I ostensibly cannot: approachable, kind—you know the litany. My smile is awkward and crooked, showing the weird gaps in my small teeth. There are some people that bring out my smile, but generally I’m not a smily person. While I am the first one to be charmed by a great smile, perhaps I have always considered them as indicative of something fake; something one wears to avoid getting into the issues; something circuitous and saccharine; something not serious? I know I do not consciously think this, but I do tend to be too serious much of the time, especially about and around my profession.

Something I take very seriously is my title, as you, my gentle readers, are all aware. Regardless of the reasons why I prefer “Dr.” over “Mr.” and “Professor” over “Teacher,” many have suggested that I do not inform others of the distinction in a very political way. Perhaps the distinctions truly are unimportant—no one seems to care anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t care either. What difference does it really make in my life? As Dan suggested, is accuracy more important than the animosity it causes? Indeed not. It’s just a matter of pride and arrogance, anyway; part of that, as my brother said, “elitist academic.” I’m not better than anyone else, yet I seem to act as if I am.

As an illustration of this very issue, a student of mine recently emailed me with the salutation: “Dear Mr. L—” Normally, I let my signature speak for me, so I do not bother correcting the title in the body of the email. However, this student’s request rankled me even further, so my replay began: “Firstly, it is Dr. L—” You can guess the tone of the rest of the very succinct email, meant to sound urgent, not admonishing. Using kid gloves takes much more effort than I can often make, especially if it seems as if the person is not making an effort at all. Well, like a patron at a restaurant who didn’t like the service, this student emailed my response to the chair in an effort to get me in trouble, I guess.

I mean, why not write me back calling me a rude bastard? Usually when confronted, I will admit it and apologise. No, instead of confronting the problem with the person who caused it, I’ll go to your superior to get you in trouble. What other kind of action could one possibly expect from going to the boss? Yes, the complainer wants special consideration, but more importantly, I think, he wants to cause trouble for the person that upset his delicate sensibilities. I digress, though this digression further illustrates just what I’m talking about.

So I hear about this via the chair, and I had to make amends. Yes, my tone could have been interpreted as brusque and impatient, and while I might be exactly right in what I said, I really need to consider the proper decorum of professional communication. Say it in a way that’s nice. I should permanently wear my kid gloves, but they keep wearing out quickly, or remain obscured by other airs.

In an effort to help the students in my online World Literature class, I have been filming the lectures of my traditional class. I plan to edit these and make them available for streaming online and for use in the library as DVDs. I have been editing the first tape, and perhaps its just my (un)natural aversion to seeing myself in pictures or hearing myself on tape, but this process is excruciating. From a student’s perspective, I’m thinking what an arrogant, condescending, and pretentious asshole. I’m teaching the epic, but my attitude suggests that this is the most important thing they’ll ever hear in their lives. My enunciation sounds as if I’m talking to children, and my very presence communicates a superciliousness that makes this entire process nauseating. Could I spend a semester with this guy? Am I really that bad? Should I even be in a discipline that requires me to talk with people? Am I just being neurotic? Is this something I can change, or are these attitudes now hard-coded in my genes?

Heading into my thirty-sixth year on this planet, these thoughts are disturbing at best. How can anyone like me at all, or even be in the same room with me for extended periods of time? If I met myself at a party, would I like me? I have always thought that one needs to continuously reevaluate one’s position to the world. What kind of idea are you? Do you do more good than harm? How do your beliefs and attitudes effect others? Do you help or hinder? One thing I’m sure of in this world: all we have is each other. I’m not certain what happens when we die (I have my suspicions), but I am sure that the most important aspect of being human (at least from where I sit right now) is our relationships with other human beings. We are gregarious, socially constructed creatures, and we need each other.

Now, what can I do to help? How can I be more patient? Can I?