By John Corvino
For those of us in academia, January doesn’t simply bring a new year: it brings a new semester.
Richard Mohr, a gay philosopher I admire, wrote an essay years ago beginning with the line “I hate students.” It shocked me. I was a young professor then, and I had grand ideals. When I encountered difficult students, my impulse was to reach out to them. I thought to myself, don’t let these poor souls slip through the cracks.
Nearly a decade later, I can still say that I don’t want difficult students to slip through the cracks. Instead, I want to kick them through the cracks. Hard.
Not always, but sometimes. Take the student who wrote to me, a week before the beginning of last semester, “Hi, I believe you are the professor for [blank]. I will be absent the first three weeks of the semester and I need you to send me all the assignments.”
The blank is not mine: he actually put it in his e-mail. It was a form letter that he sent to all of his professors. Apparently he couldn’t be bothered to address us individually and by name, or to fill in his e-mails with the relevant course numbers.
Then there’s the former student who added me to her e-mail distribution list so that she could send me chain letters telling me that if I passed them on something good would happen but if I didn’t I would get an aneurysm or something. I politely wrote to her asking her to remove me from the list. She responded, “Sorry! I forgot how impersonal you are!!!”
“Excuse me,” I patiently replied, “but since when did chain letters become ‘personal’?” I thought that would be the end of it, but she then responded, “I had really enjoyed your class, but now I see that you are just arrogant and bitter!!!”
Trust me: if I weren’t arrogant and bitter before then, the exchange brought me several notches closer.
Still another student asked me to provide him with all course materials in advance of the semester. He wrote, “You may think it unfair for you to do this for me but not for other students. To which I respond, I am not like other students.” He offered no further explanation.
True, I thought to myself, he is not like other students. Most students don’t manage to irritate me until the second or third week of the course. He did it before the class even started. That’s special.
What does this have to do with being gay? Not much. But when the semester begins I don’t think about being gay. I think, “Oh shit, here come the students.”
Actually, there is a gay connection here. If I were a straight guy, I might worry that I’m turning into a bitter old man before my time. But as a gay man, it’s worse: I worry about becoming, not just a bitter old man, but a bitter old QUEEN. Like women in business who get labeled “bitches” for doing things that would earn their male counterparts admiration, gay men face a double standard, a stereotype that looms large.
I’ve been out of the closet for as long as I’ve been teaching college (and then some). It’s not as if I announce it on the syllabus. But during the semester, I sometimes find myself illustrating a point by telling a story that involves my (male) partner. When straight professors reference their wives or husbands, it passes unnoticed. When gays do the same thing, it prompts reactions ranging from nonchalance (“OK, he’s gay. Will this be on the test?”) to shock and distress. (Only once, to my knowledge, did a student drop the course because of it.)
I think it’s important for me to come out precisely because I look forward to a day when having a gay professor is a non-issue. We won’t reach that day unless some of us are willing to pave the way. But that stance thrusts me in the position of “role model,” with all of the pressures appertaining. Which makes me especially sensitive to coming across as a bitter old queen. We have to be better, stronger, faster, cooler – just to get the same respect.
I don’t hate students, really. But sometimes they make me quite eager for sabbaticals.
As I was working on this column I learned of the untimely death of Robert C. Solomon, one of the professors who inspired me in grad school. Bob was passionate about philosophy, about teaching and about life in general; he was also extremely supportive of my interest in “non-traditional” areas of philosophy, such as the philosophy of sex. He will be deeply missed.