In Defense of Frustrating Professors

“Then someone had used the phrase ‘the Socratic method.’ What was that? It was apparently a way of giving your friend his head in an argument and progging him into a pit by cunning questions.”

– Winston Churchill

I had a bad case of senioritis and I was in no mood to put up with that impish smile and those sparkly eyes as he declared enigmatically, “there is no such thing as ‘Catholic Political Thought’.”

Then why on earth am I in this class? I thought. I had skipped a test and tried to drop it several times, but my stubborn advisor wouldn’t let me. He thought it was good for me to stay in this seemingly pointless class. He was right, as usual.

The man who taught my Catholic Political Thought class was one of the most frustrating professors I ever had. Class often felt chaotic and disorganized, and it was hard to see a consistent narrative. Why is he still talking about love and suffering? What does this have to do with politics? Ok, I get that morality and the human experience are important, but tell me what Augustine thinks. But he was also one of the most gentle and humble men I ever met, and it’s also possible that I learned more from him than I learned in any of my other, more organized and efficient professors. The very un-academic phrases he often repeated are the ones that stayed with me and still have bearing on a whole variety of real-life situations I’ve faced, as well as on my academic pursuits.

It’s easy to enjoy straightforward classes because you get to feel like you’re in control. Taking notes is a breeze, and at the end of the semester you wind up with a series of bolded points with clear definitions; all you have to do is commit them to memory and you’re good.

And then there are the ones that force you to think by putting you through painful and confusing processes. None of my political philosophy teachers in college ever answered a question, in the strict sense. Instead, they started to muse and would go on sometimes for five minutes at a time. There was never a simple solution, and there always seemed to be many…many…annoyingly many sides to the issue. This used to drive me nuts. Students hate roundabout answers. When we ask a question, we want a straightforward definition we can write quickly and fit easily into a neat outline in our notes. In this age of bulleted buzzfeed lists and 250-word tweets, we don’t have the patience for rambling old men who make us feel confused and lost in problems, and who make us feel like we are not in control.

But in graduate school I’ve come to realize that, in retrospect, these frustrating classes are the ones that have taught me something more than a list of definitions; they are the ones that taught me how to reason and think for myself. The patterns of thought I learned in those classes have remained with me. My frustration at their refusal to answer my questions straightforwardly forced me to continue to ponder the issues outside of class until I really did see that there were, in fact, many sides to the issue and many steps to the answer. A good professor teaches you to understand the value of each step. There are answers, but sometimes they are complicated; “reason” is the ability to find your way through the maze of complications in a problem and arrive at a resolution, all the better for having made your way through it slowly, one step at a time.

Slow, rambling answers are highly underrated by us young people. But their value lies in the fact that they force us to listen carefully for the answer, and show us how everything is connected in a whole. Learning in terms of bulleted lists and bolded definitions creates a temptation to see the world as a series of clear and straightforward divisions when, oftentimes, that is not the case. A list cannot teach you to think for yourself. Practicing patience can.

We all want answers, and we want them as quickly as possible. Even the best students. That hunger for knowledge makes it feel frustrating when we aren’t given the answers we crave right away. But the professors who take the time to work through problems slowly (and who withhold parts of the answer on purpose, forcing you to find them for yourself) are the ones who teach us to have the patience it takes to become a true lover of learning.

Why patience? Because patience is the ability to take what is front of you (be it a text, a situation, or a person), see it, and value it for exactly what it is, even if it’s initially difficult to understand. Patience opens you up to receive what is being offered to you in the moment, even if you don’t immediately recognize the benefit it can bring you. Patience is the ability to allow it to remain with you as an experience or a thought that changes you and your habits of mind. This is learning.

This is not to say that straightforward, clear, organized professors don’t have anything meaningful to teach you. On the contrary. Learning is a matter of taking each professor as he is, for his own person, and having the patience to receive what he has to offer as a unique individual with his own methods and years of experience. If you are a truly dedicated student, this won’t be difficult. The ability to learn can be exercised in any circumstance if you truly desire to know.

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“Slap Her” Video and the Experience of Sexual Differences

There is an Italian video against domestic violence that has drawn criticism recently from some bloggers, particularly Dr. Rebecca Hains, an expert on children’s media culture. The video begins with a series of short interviews with a handful of boys, aged 7 – 12, who are then introduced to “Martina,” a tall, blonde young girl, slightly older than the boys themselves. They are asked what they like about her and, after answering, are invited to “caress her,” “make faces at her,” and, finally, they are told firmly to “slap her.” Each of the boys refuses to follow the last command for a variety of reasons; “she’s pretty,” “she’s a girl,” “I’m against violence,” “I’m a man.” All valid reasons. The video ends on a heartwarming note that seems to appeal to men everywhere to rise to the level of manhood demonstrated by these young boys in refusing to hit a girl.

Dr. Hains is critical of the video, however, because she believes it is subtly objectifying to women. While the boys are given a long introduction that acquaints the viewer with their personalities, Martina does not speak in the video. Dr. Hain’s argues that this has a dehumanizing effect. Moreover, she objects to the boys being allowed to “caress her” seemingly without her consent, since this allegedly leads the boys (and the viewers) to see the woman as a “prize” or an object to be possessed by them. This attitude, according to Dr. Hains, is only an extension of the attitude which leads men to abuse women and treat them as objects in the first place. I’m not so certain Dr. Hains is correct in her interpretation of the effects of Martina’s silence and the boys’ caresses. The intent of the video is to create an emotional effect which provokes a desire in its viewers to protect the dignity of women and to react with revulsion against domestic violence, and I think the way in which the video tries to achieve these reactions is quite effective. More effective, in fact, than one might expect from a culture which tends to diminish the fundamental differences between men and women, since the emotional effect of the video hinges on just that – the difference between the sexes.

The effect of Martina’s silence is not dehumanizing; I thought it had quite the opposite effect. It sets her apart and brings her femininity to light in a way that would be lost if she were placed on the same dialogical par with the boys. Her silence, coupled with the enigmatic background music and tinkling sound effects, has the artistic effect of emphasizing the difference between her and the boys, and her feminine mystery in contrast to the boys’ louder masculinity. In light of her silence the boys appear rougher and more crude, but in a sweet and playful way that shows the complimentarily of the different sexes.

In fact, their reaction to her entrance dramatizes the relationship between the sexes in a way that reminded me of John Paul II’s portrayal of the presentation of Eve to Adam in the Theology of the Body. When Adam first beholds Eve – a person like himself, but with essentially different and complimentary sexual qualities – he reacts with wonder and innocent desire. The boys in the video mimic the Edenic experience by reacting to Martina with a mixture of shyness and admiration. This reaction is emphasized when the man behind the camera asks them what they like about Martina, and the boys list various physical attributes they find attractive. There is nothing “objectifying” about this emphasis on her physical qualities; the initial experience of the differences between men and women is very physical, and those differences are, after all, first and foremost biologically-based. Their observations of her are not crude or overtly sexual; they notice her natural attributes such as her hair and her eyes as well as the care she has taken to put her outfit together. They admire her the same way one might admire a beautiful painting in a museum.

But Martina is more than a painting. She comes to life in a variety of ways. Although she does not speak, the actress is a young lady who is bright and energetic, and demonstrates vivid facial expressions which the camera emphasizes. Her personality shines through in her face even though she remains silent through the video. It’s clear that she is a very real person of flesh and blood, with a lively soul underneath. Her various reactions to the boys’ awkward attentions to her provokes laughter on both sides; it dramatizes the joy and confusion which characterizes the sexes’ first encounter with each other. This draws a heartwarming emotional response which is healthy and good.

When the boys are told to caress her, they are presented with the first of two alternatives in their treatment of Martina. Dr. Hains objects to the boys’ being allowed to caress Martina without her consent and argues that this sends a dangerous message. However, I think there may be a number of misinterpretations at stake here. The word “caress” has sexual connotations in the English language which may disturb the English-speaking viewer in the way that the Italian producers did not intend. Further, platonic physical affection is much more prevalent in Italian culture than in our own, more private and reserved American culture; it’s not uncommon for friends and relatives to kiss each other on the cheek and touch each other’s arms the way the boys touch Martina in the video. None of them touches her in an inappropriate place, nor do they touch her with sexual relish. They reach out to her awkwardly and uncertainly, and in some cases enthusiastically, as any young boy might when given the opportunity to interact with a beautiful stranger. Martina’s reactions to their caresses are mixed, further emphasizing her humanity and her personality; sometimes she laughs, sometimes she is motionless, sometimes she pulls away. When the boys approach her with too much roughness or enthusiasm, she reacts with playful disgust or gentle refusal. Because of her different responses to each of the boys’ advances, her freedom is preserved in each instance.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that these advances are done against Martina’s consent, either. As we have noted, Martina does not speak (an artistic decision with power all its own) and so she does not have the opportunity to give verbal consent. Instead, her consent is implied by her posture. She smiles down at the young boys and stands in an approachable manner, as if to invite them to treat her with the respectful affection which she is owed as a woman. The proper “caress” represents the positive alternative the boys are given as to how they are to approach members of the opposite sex: women are to be treated with care and tenderness.

When the man orders the boys to slap Martina, a second alternative is offered. After experiencing the first, more positive alternative, naturally the boys pause for a moment. They are silent at first. The music stops. Their faces look confused. Some begin to frown and shake their heads. Finally, they each refuse to follow the command with an affirmative “no!” They know they are being ordered to do something wrong by the man behind the camera, however authoritative he might be. Their refusal to comply with this command shows their brave refusal to conform to something they know is wrong, even when they are ordered to do so by the authority of the day.

The main question this video raises, of course, is this: what is it that makes men refuse violence toward women? Where does the dictum “never hit a girl” actually come from? Some moralists would like to believe it’s spontaneously present in nature, and indeed, the demand that women be treated in a certain way (with dignity, care, and tenderness) is present in their biological nature as the softer sex. But kids hit each other all the time before they know any better. The appropriate moral revulsion toward violence against women must be conditioned by good parenting, and reinforced by social standards which represent this violence as something repulsive. The reinforcement of those social standards is precisely what this video attempts to accomplish. It creates a heartwarming emotional experience of the drama of sexual differences, and presents two alternatives as to how women ought to be treated. The artistic presentation makes it clear which of these alternatives is the right one, and the presentation of Martina shows why this is a beautiful thing by surrounding her with effects that emphasize and praise her femininity.

All this being said, of course, the effects of the video are limited. Men who are already predisposed to be abusive are not likely to change their minds and habits upon seeing an emotional presentation. Moreover, abuse does not occur in the context of public social life, but in the home where there is more familiarity. In the heat of the moment, abusers are not likely to be concerned with social norms. That doesn’t mean social norms are for nought, however. What the video does accomplish is the reinforcement of these norms which help boys grow into men who know how to treat women well. The video in itself cannot cure the problem of domestic violence, but it can mitigate it the same way laws against such violence can mitigate it by inculcating healthier attitudes among the general public about the way in which women should be treated.

The positive affirmation of the feminine nature is the way domestic violence can truly be combatted. If women are placed on the same sexual plane as men, what ground is there to profess that it’s wrong for men to treat women violently? All senseless violence is wrong, of course, but if we are to understand why it is especially wrong for men to hit women, the fundamental difference between the two sexes must be understood and respected. This video does a good job dramatizing those differences in a playful, sweet and innocent way.