Found Out as a Misandrist!

Over the years I have been said to be many unpleasant things.* This week, however, I was accused of something new: “blatant misandry.”

As a man working in the academic humanities, I had of course became used to being called a misogynist, even though I have never been conscious of harboring a hatred for women in general. In English departments accusing someone of misogyny or sexism (or of racism) is an effective tactic because it lays an almost unanswerable charge against your opponent and puts you on the moral high ground. Since a couple decades ago we humanities professors gave up believing in truth (it’s a social construction, like everything else) or privileging reason (a tool of the white male power structure that devalues women’s ways of knowing), the moral high ground is about the best advantage one can have. And it is fair play, according the rules now in place, to apply such terms to anyone who hasn’t made a preemptive show of right thinking.

But misandry? You don’t hear nearly so much about that. When the ritual anathemas are pronounced against the sexist, racist, homophobic, classist demons who must be cast out of our nurturing community, a general hatred of men isn’t in the rubrics.

And why me as an example of misandry? I am a man myself, as most people come to realize quite early in our acquaintance. While I can’t say I prefer the society of my own sex to that of women, I feel no hatred for other fellows as a group. I do wish some of you guys would behave a bit better, but that’s not because I hate you. It’s because I feel solidarity with you, and I think you’re letting down the side!

So how did I come to be called a man-hater?

Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece last week about what accommodations should be made for tenure-track faculty who face serious family emergencies in the years before they come up for tenure. In a touching essay using her own case as an example, the author argued for granting extensions to those dealing with a seriously ill child, as she had had to.

I added this comment:

I think very, very few people object to accommodations being made for people who are in real trouble, as this author clearly was. (And what a sad story she tells! And how well she moves from her story to issues other people face!)

What people do resent—at least sometimes with justification—is the assumption that parents, or anyone else, should always get a break because of the ordinary difficulties their life choices entail. Even the crustiest childless bachelor will be happy to see a colleague get some slack when s/he suffers a calamity; almost everyone will wonder why the troubles s/he struggles with go unnoticed while special arrangements are made for people who choose to have a child or a long-distance relationship and then feel burdened by travel or child-care.

So the author is right: while they can be abused, policies that let people deal with the duties that are thrust upon them by circumstance without risking their careers only make the workplace more humane—and more productive in the long run, I would think. But if someone thinks s/he is being taken advantage of because their woes don't fall into the right category, s/he shouldn't be ignored, either.
Those who know my work may both recognize my style and see that I have adapted a convention I usually avoid. I have used a form of “inclusive language.” (The s-slash-he pronoun and the solecism of using “their” after a singular antecedent.) I usually stick to the traditional conventions of English and use masculine pronouns with common gender antecedents. That is, I would say,

  • “No one has a right to an opinion until he has sought out evidence to support his position.”


  • “No one has a right to an opinion until he or she has sought out evidence to support his or her position.”


  • “No one has a right to an opinion until s/he has sought out evidence to support their position.”

though I might say,

  • “People have no right to opinions until they have sought out evidence to support their positions.”

I stick to the convention because I think it is clear that the “he” after “everyone” includes women, because I deplore the recent confusion of sex (male or female) and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter, or common), and because I resent a change in English grammar has come through a fiat pronounced by the same people who deplore “prescriptivism” when it comes to all other questions on grammar and usage. I also think that “their” is plural and shouldn’t be used with singular antecedents.

Here I decided not to have that fight, because I wanted the
Chronicle’s readers to pay attention to my point and not write me off as a nasty old sexist when they saw the first masculine pronoun. That was especially important in this instance, because the essay involved motherhood and childcare, which are subjects on which a male commentator must tread warily in academic circles, lest he find himself in a discussion of his own sexism rather than the discussion he thought had entered. I have heard the feminist hiss following my comments at enough MLA Conventions to be wary here: some take feminism as an excuse to heap opprobrium on people who have tried to make rational arguments in perfect good will. When I’m trying to talk about personnel policies, there is no need to give such people an excuse to avoid my argument and excoriate my pronouns.

In a sense, I was successful. I drew no scorn for my sexism. But I did get this comment:

Aside from the blatant misandry in your post, the rest of the post rings true.
I had managed to sound like a man-hater instead of a misogynist. Was it the reference to “crusty old bachelors?” Perhaps. I should have included the cranky old spinsters to be truly inclusive. But the use of the “s/he’s” may have been the main problem, and certainly made the reference to crusty bachelors worse. To some readers, I had uncased the colours of the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Why should I be surprised that they drew fire from the embattled men, who have been taking shots from every side?

I would say that my name should have served as a clue that in talking about crusty old bachelors I might be making a self-deprecatory reference to my own sort, rather than stigmatizing the other sex. (Thus far, I have only met one female Bryan, and that’s a family surname that has been fastened to one female in each generation to appease ancestral spirits who are evidently both cruel and eccentric.) But who reads the names attached to comments posted to online discussions? While I sign what I write, most people use a
nom de web, and any hints to sex, position, or nationality may be completely bogus.

From now on, I think I will just go back to using masculine pronouns with common gender antecedents. It is concise. It is correct according to authorities who wrote when people could be prescriptivists in good faith. And since I’m going to be accused of something in any case, I would just as soon bear a stigma that suits my sex.


*Just in print, I have been called “prolix” (too often true) and “Jansenist” (false, but better that than “Pelagian”). 

Administrators and Plagiarism

For years I taught my students about plagiarism, thinking I was teaching about honesty itself. To pass the work of another off as one's own was ignoble, dishonest, just plain wrong. It would be as wicked for a scholar to tolerate it as it would be for merchant to tolerate the sale of tainted goods or a policeman to tolerate the use of bogus evidence. I also thought that position was one of the underpinnings of an academic world in which people were evaluated mostly by their writing.

I have not changed my views, but I cannot teach them to students without admitting that the standards I espouse apply only in the artificial setting of the classroom. The university as a whole acts on the assumption that doing your own written work is like emptying your own wastebasket: something you do only if you are not important enough to have someone do it for you. Students are still punished for plagiarism, and plagiarism might sink an applicant for tenure. But my university—from which I am semi-retired—is governed by a chancellor and a president who are both proven plagiarists and who have ample staffs to write the documents they sign and the speeches they write.

(I would find the ghostwriting less offensive if the administrators followed the lead of those honest celebrities whose autobiographies appear “as told to” the real author. Acknowledging the real author in the text of the document or program of the speech would be honest and might make clearer what jobs academic administrators actually do.)

But the question remains, do we demand students do their own work simply because we have to test them on it? Does our society, even in its academic institutions, no longer value giving credit for ideas and the eloquent expression of them to their creators? The behavior of many academic administrators says it does not.

(Ref: “
Faking It for the Dean” by Carl Elliott, Chronicle of Higher Education “Brainstorm” Blog, 2/7/12.

An Editor’s Dating Advice

A new Ph.D. writes,

So here’s the question: My dissertation was on [a literary topic], so how do I even start the process [of turning it into a book]?
Try to remember why you were ever interested in this topic. (Since for years it has been the bane of your existence, you may find that a difficult task.) Then reread your manuscript, always asking yourself, “Would this hold my interest if I were not a college professor?” Conduct this exercise while holding a pen with bright red ink and a wide nib. You will be told not to use such implements on student essays, since you might damage your charges’ delicate psyches, but you needed worry about that with your own work: you’ve been to graduate school, so your psyche can be assumed to have been damaged beyond repair.

Ruthlessly cut everything that strikes your “common reader” alter ego as boring. Kill the references to scholars and theorists you put in only to show that you really had read them. Cut the nouns doing the work of verbs. In fact, cut any noun you cannot imagine the owner of an independent bookstore using over a cup of the espresso he sells because he can’t turn a profit on books. My guess is that he doesn’t pepper his conversation with alterity, herteronormativity, subaltern discourses, and post-post-modernist. Say whatever you want, but say it as a person talking to other people, not as a member of a lodge using some dorky lingo like a secret handshake. 

Once you have translated your work into something like English, read it out loud to your girlfriend, as long as she isn’t a fellow Ph.D. This exercise will have two immediate effects: First, you will break up. That is just as well: you can’t afford a steady girlfriend until you have tenure. Second, you will realize that your prose is still not fit to be let out in public. Mark every sentence you are embarrassed to hear passing your lips. (If you are past the point of being embarrassed to discover that you sound like a pseud, a pedant, or a victim of brainwashing, give up teaching and sign up for a stint in the army or the peace corps and don’t come home until you learn to recognize b.s. when you hear it.) Revise or cut those sentences. Then ask her what your point was. (She’ll feel guilty that she’s decided to dump you, so she’ll try to be helpful.) If you don’t recognize your point from her description of it, try to sell the MS to Peter Lang as is, count on nobody reading it if they take it, and start from scratch, trying to explain to the common reader why you were ever excited about some marks on a ream of paper or a bunch of grown men and women playacting on a stage or in front of a camera. Do not think of proceeding with this project until you have created a first paragraph that you can use as an "elevator pitch.” In fact, don’t go on until you have a first paragraph that makes you sound charming on your next first date. Once you’re happy with that paragraph—i.e., have got a second date—carry on and try to write more that appeals to real human beings. Just remember: editors have read plenty of student papers and don’t want to read any more of them. But we always like to be charmed. Treat us as if you know you have to earn our attention and will be lucky to get it. We all have cab fare and freezers stocked with cookie dough ice cream, so make an effort to please. We’re not going to sit though pages of tedium just to be polite.

A Simple Solution to the Problems in College Sports

The problem is the pretense that athletes in big-time college programs are students. They are not. They don’t have time to be.

The most honest thing to do would be to spin off the teams from the universities. Let the schools own them as investments if they want to, but make them independent, for-profit corporations and treat them and all their employees like other corporations and employees. Let the staff--the players—demand as much as the market will bear, just as their coaches do. And don’t impose on them requirements irrelevant to their jobs, such as pretending to interested in going to class. Those players who want college educations will get them, just as other working students do. Those with no interest in college education will not have to feign it, and colleges will not have to pretend people who don’t meet their admissions standards are fit to be students.

Stanford doesn’t pretend that the people working at the shopping mall it owns are students; why does it have to pretend that the people working on its football team are?

Bias in Academia

There is no point in arguing that there isn’t a liberal bias in academia. Try finding a volunteer to advise the student Republican Club in any humanities department—especially if they want someone who is an actual Republican. But there is no reason to see conspiracy or group think at more than their ordinary levels.

An element of bias is inevitable as long a people are influenced by their economic interests. (And I cannot think of an academic, of whatever political stripe, who thinks those interests do not influence all people--except, perhaps, themselves.)

Most educational institutions are state-supported and very few forego all government funding. Their employees therefore have a very personal but rarely articulated economic interest in what might be called “big government” policies. “Big government” puts food on their tables. Those in the truly private industries—i.e., those that don't rely on government business or subsidies—see government primarily as the tax collector. It takes hard-earned food off their tables. 

This bias cannot be eliminated, but it can be acknowledged. Just as professors who receive funding from corporations need to acknowledge that fact, all professors need to say—out loud—“my opinions are arrived at independently, but they are funded by the taxing power of the state.”

Bait and Switch in English Departments

With the MLA Convention upon us, we are hearing the annual laments for a profession fallen on hard times. I’m afraid I have come to take a very jaundiced view of the whole business.

Over the years I have come to think of the English business works as a massive bait and switch. I, at least, got into the business thinking that I was going to be doing two things. First, I would be engaged in a scholarly enterprise. That is, I was be seeking an ever-better approximation of the truth about a subject. Second, I would be passing on to others something truly important, their very own cultural heritage, from which they might then take delight, solace, and even wisdom. In graduate school I still heard a little about those ideas, but the working assumption was that they were naive pre-post-modernist b.s. There was no truth to be told about literature; all interpretations were equally true, though some might get more attention than others. And that cultural heritage was a genuinely bad thing: nothing but racist, sexist, classist, homophobic veils for the power structure. Power-relationships were the only things that might be real--though why you would study them by reading rhymes and stories was still a mystery. Once I became a professor, the cultural heritage—much less delight, solace, and wisdom—seemed to be the last thing anyone cared about. The administration wanted remedial programs for students who couldn’t write a memo. And the “rhet/comp” specialists the administration hired because they were called writing expects seemed to want to do social work instead of teaching anyone anything. People who wanted to focus on the study of literature were steadily marginalized. All this in itself would make people like me wonder about their life choices, but the academic culture, as least as I experienced it, included few people willing to stand up for either ideas or people and many who just kept their heads down, nodded when required to, and let people's lives be ruined rather than cross either those in power or those in office (not always the same groups, by any means). If I meet a young person who loves literature now, I may tell them to major in English as an undergraduate, but I will never tell one to get a Ph.D. or seek a job in an English Department.

Am I Just a Barrista? Yes, Professor, You Are.

From an associate professor:

I got this one a few days ago, the day I sent out the syllabus electronically:

Good Morning Dr. B.

This is very annoying, but I bought different editions of the books. Is there any way that you could give me the chapter numbers instead of page numbers?

This is relatively minor, but revealing, I think, of a mindset in which I am to take orders from a freshman, even prior to meeting this person face to face!!  Am I wrong to find this worrisome?
Gentle Reader:

There are many things you should find worrisome. If you let the behavior of college students be one of them, however, you are in for a life of worry verging on despair and an early ejection from your professorial chair, perhaps at your own volition, perhaps at the request of the customer-service officials we now cloak with traditional academic titles such as “dean,” “provost,” and “president.”

All the same, you may still be young and eager enough to care about something beyond your paycheck and your faculty parking permit, so I will venture to suggest some thoughts that may be of use as you contemplate the decline of your youthful hopes and the approaching victory of that Deity whose advent was so well described by dear Mr. Pope.

But first, let me point out that there is a tiny ray of hope to be found amid the gathering gloom. Your student has bought a book! If I read his missive correctly, he has bought more than one! Our ray of hope reveals the first sprig of a devotion to learning that you must at all costs protect as you chop back the weeds of ignorance! (I beg the reader’s forgiveness if I have strayed too far into the allegorical: a single botanical image can have me wandering about in the garden of eloquence for hours at a time.) While others have snapped up used copies in which the dimmest students of past semesters have marked the least important passages in blazing yellow, he may have even bought a new book or two. Other universities may rent out textbooks like Segways at a park or pack preloaded Kindles into the orientation goody bags as if they were credit card applications, but yours has somehow led a young person to go to a bookstore and buy something that cannot be worn to a football game or drunk with a bran muffin. Many would say that your work for the term is already done.

But the drink that did not come with the wholly hypothetical and thus calorie-free bran muffin—probably a venti half-caf soy latte with a mocha shot—brings us back to the larger subject. Let us face that subject squarely: you object to being treated like a barista by the paying customer. I urge you to look at this matter from the young person’s perspective. Had you produced a frappuccino with a shake of cinnamon when the customer wanted sprinkles, the case would be clear. You would have said how sorry you were and immediately whipped up a new beverage to order. If you had given your sunniest smile, the customer would have placed a couple quarters or a wrinkled dollar bill in the tip jar, and all would have be well. You have produced a syllabus with page numbers instead of chapter numbers. Is there some reason the student should not expect you to correct the problem with the same alacrity displayed by the barista?

You will object that you are not in a service industry, that your job is not, in fact, to make the customer’s life flow more smoothly. You will declare that you, in fact, work for truth, for academic standards, for the preservation of our culture, and that you therefore deserve all the deference accorded to physicians and to judges. Sadly, that is simply not true. Much of your work is judged only through student evaluations, so you are this kid’s servant, not, whatever degrees you may hold, the master of anything. You are in just the position of the barista: you must ’em smiling, bro, ’cause you work for tips. (Forgive my descent into the demotic.)

Now, you may pretend that the world is the one you were sold when your entered graduate school. You can demand a bit of deference, arguing that signs of disrespect for you show, in fact, a lack of respect for the whole enterprise in which you and your students are embarked. Like the barista who asks the hurried customer to say “please” and “thank-you,” you will find your tip jar empty—and management will inform you that you and they have just developed a very real need to talk. The subject will not be your research.

Or you could use this episode to teach some dreary lessons to your student. First, if you are discussing a text with others you need to be literally “on the same” page that they are; otherwise you cannot verify each other’s assertions as you join together to approximate truth. Second, all texts are not the same. Some are bowdlerized. Some are revised. Some are well-edited while others are just scanned by a machine programed to recognize Croatian. Some are even abridged. And you don’t want to be the one who calls the ship in
Billy Budd the Indomitable while everyone else has seen the name Bellipotent and wishes it were easier to pronounce. Finally, if you know you are going to get instructions, wait for them—or ask for those instructions, not a waiver, ahead of time.Teaching those lessons may be part of the job you thought you had, but doing that job will not improve the all-important measures of student satisfaction.

What, then, is to be done? After embittering decades, your correspondent has only a few suggestions. Wear a tie to class. Check your fly before entering the room. Ignore all questions you don’t feel like answering. And make sure you’re putting the maximum into your 403(b).

It is borne in upon me, however, that I may have missed the main point of your inquiry. If your student is actually signing messages “XXXXX,” speak to the dean immediately. Don’t let it escalate to the OOOOO level. Universities now have policies about the use of X’s and O’s in student-faculty correspondence, and whatever has transpired, your guilt will be assumed.

Writing from a tranquil glen down the road from the Groves of Academe,

I remain, Sir,
Etc., Etc.

The Kids are Not All Right

A professor writes,

Is it possible that we are all underestimating the extent of the depravity on today's campuses?
I think most professors and parents make it their business not to think about the question. They feign shock with the lives students actually live are described. The professor at the residential college who complains about students who are hung-over or actually drunk must be joking. Those descriptions of the “hook-up culture” are just envy and voyeurism. The mothers and fathers upset because their child is being tormented by a roommate who is sexiling him, dealing drugs out of the room, or half-crazy from roid-ragea are just the helicopter parents. But I think that there is a real problem, one that we are too squeamish to look at the problem and too lazy to fix it.

Let’s look at two works by authors who belong to different generations, display different sensibilities, and are celebrated by different sorts of readers. During the last decade, both Tom Wolfe and Jeffrey Eugenides have written novels that depict undergraduate life at elite institutions. Wolfe based his work on reporting. Eugenides perhaps drew more on his own experience. I am Charlotte Simons is a sprawling social novel. The Marriage Plot is a narrow exploration of character. But the picture of campus life I, at least, took from the two novels was not that different. The top ten university still has students who are excited by ideas and ernest in their curiosity, though they share the place with people focused on having a good time in the moment or preparing to get rich as quickly as possible. But all the students live in settings that are filthy and chaotic and they all move in society’s where sexual exploitation of one kind or another is almost the default mode of human interaction. Even the characters we come to like best are adrift and seem likely to be entering what should be adulthood without having become cultured or principled, no matter how well they have mastered some narrow body of knowledge.

Let me start by suggesting part of our problem is that we live with a lie that we cannot admit to and cannot act on. That whopper is that students of traditional college age are adults. No culture of the past has thought they are. (21 was the traditional age of majority for reasons other than numerology.) Our auto insurance companies don’t think they are. Our legislators cease to pretend they are when writing their counter-productive drinking laws. Our new health care law says that they are dependent children until eight years after they have started voting. And brain scientists say that the brain doesn’t reach adult development until about 25.

We decided to stop acting on the evidence in a fit of bad conscience over sending children to early deaths in Vietnam. (Note that there was no similar reaction to earlier drafts, since they applied to all men of military age. During World War II a bachelor in a non-exempt occupation could be called up in his early 40’s.) That some young men were being put under the supervision of drill sergeants and turned into canon-fodder was hardly a justification for removing all restraints from luckier young people, but our society was not acting rationally just then.

The colleges and universities that used to act in loco parentis have given up that part of the job. Alma Mater has found better things to do with her time and left the kids to amuse themselves with the keys to the liquor cabinet and a building full of mattresses.

Unsupervised children tend to behave badly. They torment each other. They drink irresponsibly. They don’t clean their rooms or get up in the morning. They have sex without a thought to consequences.

In the past adults handled this fact in two ways. First, they taught young people that their impulses were more likely to be wicked than innocent. Second, they did not leave them to their own devices. Boys, such as the undergraduates at Oxbridge colleges, lived among adults, who could keep an eye on them. Girls had duennas or their unpaid equivalents. And the institution of “chaperone” remained alive, well, and wide awake.

Those days are now gone, of course. If an adult other than a custodian enters a college dormitory it is a rare event. (The “house mother” is long gone.) Having no adult models for adult behaviors, such as drinking responsibly or flirting or courting respectfully, the students blunder through situations that are difficult at all ages or use the chaos as a chance to prey on the weak, ignorant, or intoxicated.

I don’t think this situation is good for education in any sense. And I think that if things are going to improve, professors will need to take a real part in campus life. As many as possible should actually live on campus. Others should regularly dine with the students. (And the students should eat together at set times, not in the various snacking venues universities have created despite their claims to value “community.”) The student activities offices should be closed and the their functions transferred back to the faculty.

I would, of course, also like to see college students treated as minors again, though I would also like to allow 18-year-olds to drink legally so that they could do it with adult supervision.

We do have a problem. It was caused by generations of adults who wanted to remain kids while having the rights of grown-ups, and who have failed to act as “pastors and masters” to students who desperately need someone to set some limits, sometimes on their own behavior, sometimes on that of those who make campus life a nightmare for the responsible and eager students.