They bother me to this day: the words spoken by a young man whose name I do not know, but whose tone of voice and expression I remember as vividly as if I were still standing in that lecture hall, my hands frozen to the lectern, cheeks flushed with a combination of nerves, embarrassment and — dare I say it? — more than a touch of anger. I saw in that moment the horrors of education without love and vowed that I would never use my expertise in a field as a weapon of power to tear others down.
I was, at that time, a lowly master’s student trying to present a paper in the same field as my undergraduate major, even though I’d gone into a somewhat different discipline for my master’s. I’d been studying my particular topic for two months — and there I was at an academic conference, surrounded by PhD candidates who were presenting on subjects they’d been immersed in for two years or so. I was nervous as all get-out.
Why was I presenting on a topic in which I had very little background? In a word: love.
Soon after I’d begun working on my master’s degree, I realized that it was in a subject which I did not love. I remembered the joy of studying my undergraduate subject, and working on the paper for this conference had been a delight — a relief, really, from the drudgery of trying to pursue a course of study in which I found little pleasure. Naturally, I was nervous. But I was also in love.
My presentation of the paper went well. It was not a particularly impressive paper, but (I thought) interesting enough, and I read it with verve and clarity.
Then it happened.
I’ve always been nervous in front of people and, for this reason, prefer doing theatre or preaching (this way, I can plan out what I say or memorize and then deliver) than extemporaneous speaking. When I don’t know exactly what I intend to say or do and all eyes are on me, my brain freezes and I can’t think or speak straight.
Another student asked me a question — a good, honest question that, when I thought about it more deeply later, I could have answered if I hadn’t been caught off guard. But even if I hadn’t known the answer to the question, I could have made some excuse about how it was “beyond the scope of my research” or something like that — that is, if I hadn’t been so nervous. But I was nervous and I froze. All I could manage was: “Well, I think that…um…uh…I, um…yes…” the ghastly fillers kept spilling out of my mouth for an extraordinary length of time until I finally gave up and apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m very nervous right now.”
A kindly academic (who happened to know about my limited background in the subject at hand) suggested, “Would it be helpful to you if he repeated the question?”
“No, um, thank you, I think…uh…I’m having difficulty finding my thoughts,” I said (or something to that effect).
Then another kind professor and his teaching assistant helped me to get back on my feet, so to speak, by picking up the conversation where I had so unceremoniously dropped it. They knew my paper was based in much of the material we’d been discussing in a seminar led by said professor, so they had some idea of how to address the question that had been raised. I was grateful for the help and tried to be involved in the conversation a little — but I was still so nervous and eager to get out of the room that I found myself nodding and giving verbal ascent to the majority of what the professor was saying.
I knew, of course, that in a conference or seminar given in this post-Enlightenment era, this is exactly what you aren’t suppose to do: agree. As a critical scholar, you are expected to think for yourself, to challenge the interpreters and come up with your own reading (not a wildly different reading — just different enough to be mildly impressive without threatening the status quo). And so I might have done if I had been writing a paper alone in my room or discussing a topic around a table with other scholars devoted to giving constructive criticism. But I was shaking in my boots, my thoughts were gone, and I did not have the leisure to think critically at that moment.
Then he spoke up — that PhD candidate who’d presented on a pseudepigraphical text I hadn’t even known existed. He delivered his question with an upward tilt of the chin and a taunting smile, “Tell me, Rebekah, do you always agree with Prof _________?”
I said nothing. I took a deep breath and I think — at least, I hope — that I raised my eyebrows with an aloof and dignified expression that communicated how pedantic I thought his question. I hope this is what I did. I remember very little of what happened immediately after that. Somehow I finished. I remember as we were all gathering our belongings to go have some tea, the PhD candidate came to me and made some trite remark about how he was only kidding or teasing me — it certainly wasn’t an apology. The professor’s kind teaching assistant whispered to me that I shouldn’t mind what he says.
Sometimes, I imagine the scene again, but this time I make a congenial but pointed comeback. “Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you?” I say, laughing of course, to diffuse the tension and make him feel genuine shame (as opposed to caustic annoyance or anger). I don’t really regret the lack of witty comebacks, but I do wish that I’d had enough presence of mind to be straight with him and say something like: “No, don’t try to excuse it. That wasn’t edifying; it was destructive. It wasn’t kindly meant or done. And you hurt me, whether or not you care.”
I am not ashamed to say that I cried after that — I cried very hard. Everyone else went off to have tea before the next lecture, but my husband and I found a quiet spot and he held me as I cried out all my nerves and sorrow and hatred. All year, I’d been doubting my abilities as a scholar because of how little joy I found in learning. This conference in the field I loved had been my temple; the little paper my two-mite offering. And then to have one of its priests scorn the offering for being so small: “Your academic offerings will never be enough. You don’t have what it takes to be a real, critical scholar. If you want to be a follower, go back and be one of the masses. There’s no place for you here.” That’s what I heard.
And sometimes, that’s what I still hear. The words still cut into me and I wonder if I’m skilled enough, thoughtful enough — or if I’m too enthralled by my subject to be a good critical scholar. Then I remember the words of another scholar with the opposite philosophy: “You can’t really read anything unless you trust it.” In its context, the phrase isn’t a call to read uncritically, but to remember that you must first trust a text — listen to it, believe in it, love it, stand within it — before you try to step back and look critically at it.
But we’re still daughters and sons of the Enlightenment, willing to admit our inability to stand fully outside a text — but still somewhat embarrassed by this handicap. We wish we could be unbiased. We still write as if we long to be unbiased — apologizing at the beginning of our theses that we can’t be objective observers, bemoaning our subjective perspective. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that (especially in an academic setting) it can be very good and important to acknowledge bias and be aware of presuppositions. But sometimes we take this too far and begin to pursue an ideal that we were never meant to attain: to be observers who stand outside the inhabited earth and gaze at it objectively.
Sometimes, this unobjectivity becomes so unbearable that we make a point of disagreeing with each other, as if to say, “No one’s got it fully, so I can’t follow anyone wholly except myself.” Of course, this doesn’t quite work because if we follow ourselves, we’re still following someone who hasn’t “got it fully.” We’re still afraid to throw in our lot with someone (even for a brief span of time) because we’re afraid they’ll turn out to be wrong — and then we’ll be found to be fools.
Fools for believing in something that wasn’t true. Fools for neglecting to know what we should’ve known. Fools for being ignorant.
Fools for learning what we didn’t know before.