Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Oh, PU-Leeze!

You ever read something and just think... "Gimme a break! I mean, who ARE you?"

That was my reaction to reading Timothy Lukes' piece for the Chronicle Review. For those of you without the password, here is my somewhat biased synopsis. Lukes will not put a rainbow sticker on his door because it would compromise his politics and his desire to educate his LGBT students.

He has two primary points: First, he rejects the politics of identity and will not capitulate with any effort, however well-intentioned, that countenances such a politics. Identity politics obscures difference and posits only similarity related to one shared characteristic, offering a simplistic political understanding and ethos. He writes:

What I oppose, therefore, is not the safety of gay students, but the feeling of safety experienced by all students when they encounter the interest paradigm. A "safe space" sticker promotes a sense of comfort probably unintended by its promoters. It advertises the person displaying it as someone predisposed to a popular agenda, rather than an instigator of unusual, even unsafe, considerations.
So, identity-related stickers are out! Lukes is cool--he is an instigator.

Second, and his larger point, is that he believes that education is about unsettling students, making them feel unsafe and open to the larger truths and possibilities. We should not be about the business of worrying about issues of survival; ours is a higher calling, focused on issues of beauty and truth. A scholar of Marcuse, who teaches a course on politics and aesthetics, Lukes wants to talk about what matters--or what matters to him. He notes:

Thus by displaying the sticker, I would be betraying my gay students, not assisting them. I would be exempting them from the disorienting but essential epiphany that neither they, nor I, can be certain of their full identity. It would also preclude our sharing those beautiful exchanges of the fanciful and transcendental. Safety is a much more complex issue in a classroom than it is in a motor vehicle, and the best classes are those in which seat belts are occasionally unbuckled.

So if a student, gay or straight, craves a safe and secure recapitulation and celebration of popular identity taxonomy, my office is not the place to visit.

Thus, a "safe space" is stifling to creativity and real learning, and promotes a focus on the wrong issues.

These arguments are the kind of crap that makes my gf shake her head and denounce the uselessness of academics. Honestly, that is pretty much my own reaction as well.

I kept thinking what a noble and easy life has this tenured, white?, male, heterosexual?, full professor... I mean, he doesn't have to think about the gay male student:
1. who is just discovering his sexuality during his first six months away from home;
2. who isn't sure how to ask a guy out on a date, or even really where to meet or how to identify a gay guy;
3. whose roommate is filing a complaint because the student disclosed that he is gay, it "freaks" the roommate out, and he wants the student to move out;
4. whose parents are asking why he doesn't have a girlfriend;

5. whose religious upbringing teaches him that his desires are sinful and that to embrace his sexuality, he must discard any other notion of religious or spiritual connection or his sense of being a good person.
Being gay isn't all this student is, but it is certainly a part of him. Often, sexual orientation and gender expression become more important during people's teens and early twenties. And as LGBT students become more interested and aware of their sexual and gender orientations, they are made more aware, often at great pain and expense, of the ways in which society rejects and punishes LGBT people. Many studies of LGBT students have found a gross overrepresentation of these students among those who drop out of school, attempt suicide, and adopt unhealthy behaviors.

But, because Lukes is more concerned with his pursuit of beauty and light, he will demand that the hypothetical gay male student described above stop worrying about his damn sexuality and focus on real issues. And Lukes will forego any outward sign that he might be a good person to speak with this student. And perhaps, in the long run, he isn't. But what if Lukes is a good person, a good mentor, who is comfortable with LGBT people and can provide a friendly, accepting space for the student while they discuss and debate political philosophy?!

The "safe space" stickers do not signify the same thing as rainbow stickers worn by queers (and allies) around the world. (I would also argue that the meanings of the rainbow stickers also vary depending on time, location, and the people sporting them!) Instead, the safe space programs recognize that the benighted "real" world of fear, intimidation, and exclusion extends into the university, and LGBT students encounter these forces frequently. These students need very intentional signs of welcome, and that is all the stickers provide. Offering welcome and freedom from critique based solely on one's actual or percieved sexual orientation or gender expression is not antithetical to teaching in my book; actually, the creation of safe space allows the students to engage more fully and critically with materials, ideas, and differences, and to hear more challenging feedback from faculty.

Further, Lukes fails to recognize the many ways he already demonstrates who he is. What books sit on his shelves? What posters, comics, and postcards line his walls and cover his doors? Which books and articles has he written? Which courses does he teach? How about the ring on his finger, or the family picture on his desk? What groups does be advise? What is one more sticker, added to all that? One that says, "I am comfortable with diversity based on sexual orientation and gender expression. I am knowledgeable about issues people in these groups face, and I am not going to discriminate against you here based on these identity characteristics." What better invitation can an LGBT student get to engage in the process of higher learning?

As Angry Black Bitch might say...
Blink. Shudder.

Walk away grumbling.


Marti said...

I would be exempting them from the disorienting but essential epiphany that neither they, nor I, can be certain of their full identity.

As if the student needs to know their full identity? You're simply telegraphing to the student that you're not a damn bigot or homophobe and you won't have to play to an professor's bigotry to get a decent grade. If anything, this allows the student to express their place in life....

Safety is a much more complex issue in a classroom than it is in a motor vehicle, and the best classes are those in which seat belts are occasionally unbuckled.

It sounds like someone is full of hot airbag. There's a difference between having an open and honest debate about identity, and the ability to be able to express your queerness without being graded based on your identity.

It advertises the person displaying it as someone predisposed to a popular agenda, rather than an instigator of unusual, even unsafe, considerations.

Yes, that ugly agenda called tolerance of diversity... how revoltingly disgusting is that!

I hate to be so derogatory, but the guy sounds like a really pompous butthole.

Dean Dad said...

Preach on, LP!

A couple of years ago my cc introduced some safe zones. The dynamics of the political discussion were interesting: a few passionate advocates (myself included), and a whole lot of silent disapproval.

Somehow, I doubt that most of the disapproval came from a concern that we were short-circuiting the oppositional consciousness of the proletariat, or distracting the students from the disembodied quest for Platonic ideals. Call it a hunch.

Someday, when I feel like enduring the inevitable flaming, I'll post something about "how to be a straight married white guy who is actually supportive of difference, without coming off as a passive/aggressive touchy-feely douchebag." But the internet isn't exactly a safe zone in which to try that sort of thing.

Sisyphus said...

And you didn't even mention how at some campuses, like mine, gay students have been physically threatened! Where do you go to talk about this (particularly if the aggressors are in the same class as you) if you don't see any overt signs and symbols that X or Y faculty member is going to be sympathetic and helpful?

I'm glad he's smart enough to reject the sticker, though, 'cause if he was uncomfortable with what they were about or how to mentor LGBT students and put one on his door anyway, that would be worse. At our campus, the profs had to go to a two-day training to get the stickers, but there've been lots of office moves since then, and now I would tell people _not_ to use the door stickers as an indicator of allied faculty.

sherishu said...

How about my former "progressive pedigree" southeastern university dean who opposed the safe space program because it was "divisive"? Meaning, it divides the faculty who are bigots or at least uncomfortable with glbt folks enough that putting up a sticker seems too bold from those who are brave enough or compassionate enough to do so? Yep.

highlyeccentric said...

hunh. that guy definitely strikes me as a dickhead, but i'm puzzled about the sticker program itself. Isn't it part of the teacher's DUTY not to discriminate? That they can opt to be a 'safe space' suggests to me that others aren't *required* to provide that same equality... which is unsettling, to say the least.

Perhaps the situation in the States is more severe than here? Perhaps i'm too straight and middle class to get it?

Dan Myers said...

First, I'll say Hear, Hear!

Second, this guys speak like someone who has never been in a consistently unsafe space. Zero empathy for anyone else's experience. Ya know, optimal learning requires both challenge AND support.

Third, to perhaps make this a little clearer, think a bout a campus like mine which is thoroughly Catholic. 95% of this environment does not feel remotely safe to LGBT students. That's pretty much all it takes to understand why people need to know where an oasis or two can be found. And let's face it, it is not all that different at non-religious schools.

This kind of yammering is nothing but an academized version of "modern" prejudice and an attempt to justify one's own bigotry.

Dan Myers said...

Gotta add one more thing. On a campus like mine, safe space marker also signal something to other queer-positive people who are trying to figure out how to negotiate the environment. "Straight" allies need to find their people too and safe space markers can help guide them into places for productive dialog, support, and to help them find their activist community.