Thursday, April 27, 2006

Miss Manners Regrets

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Is it our job to teach manners? Should it be?

As a bossy oldest sibling, I am happy to enforce norms and box ears. However, some bloggers take issue with "raising" students as well as teaching them. This is a point which also turns on gender in several ways, since it may very well be that those of us who resist and resent feminizing roles in the academy might also draw the line at being Mommy in the realm of manners, while those of us who do not feel particularly feminized might be perfectly happy to enforce better behavior. Or, some of us who HAVE experienced quite a lot of pressure to "act like a girl" in the academy--ie be daughter-like or mommy-like in legible ways--still might not mind being Miss Manners, because there's something satisfying and powerful about putting young louts in their place. After all, Mary Poppins understood that most of the fun of being in charge was being PERFECTLY superior in every way.

I am in the latter category.

It may be that it is related to teaching English, as I imply in my earlier post. After all, if we draw the line at knowledge (I am teaching Contemporary British Lit., and that's ALL I'm teaching), then I guess we would only teach writing in writing classes. That seems absurd. If we read Foucault, we know that besides our expertise, we are also correctly training docile bodies. That also makes the issue of not teaching manners and civility seem like an arbitrary line in the sand. After all, we are already doing so much more than teaching our actual narrow fields.

I wonder what you think?


Weezy said...

I agree with you totally! I approach it from a skills based persective. I am not trying to turn them all into little historians-- but I am trying to teach them to succeed in life. This means developing their analytical skills, reading and writing skills, organizational skills, manners and personal responsibility.

I always try and approach it from a "real life" perspective. Would you whattup to your boss? A client?

Would you send an email that reads like a text message to your boss?

Would you hand out a presentation that is not stapled or looks like your cat ate it and expect to keep your job?

Sometimes I think I'm not getting through but I keep holding on to 'They will thank me some day.'

Weezy said...

Arrrrgh (but in some ways making me laugh) I just had an encounter with a member of my department who wants to 'have a chat' about my 'policing' of plagiarism. The brief jist of the conversation was 'we are coaches, not enforcers.' (and then he went on to compare me to the worst adjunct we have) I wanted to scream, cry and just absolutely lose it.

I just had to tell you b/c is was your post exactly. I am doing my job which is not to draw smiley faces and give you forty two chances to get it right.

But I guess as an adjunct i am just suppossed to make the students happy.

Thanks for letting me vent :)

App Crit said...

Wow, Weezy. I had that same discussion with my chair during annual review. My reply was along the lines of, "Middle school teachers should be the academic integrity coaches. We should be the enforcers." He then told me that I don't understand the kids these days, what with their downloading of mp3s and such. Whatever!

Sfrajett, you raise a very interesting point in the discussion. I still do not feel that we should raise students, but I honestly believe that it's not because I am rejecting or adopting any feminizing role in my conception of the profession. I don't expect my female colleagues to do any more or less than me in this regard, though I concede some of my senior colleagues, male and female, would. But, as I reflect more on it, I suppose I do have my ways of teaching civility, though I try keep it within the decorum of the academy. For example: it's in my syllabus that students may only send me e-mail if it is from an account with a username that resembles theirs. If they e-mail me "hey, i wuz just wundering if you could send me the notes," I respond, "Dear Ms./Mr. ..., ...." They get it, and many will adopt what I consider professional bahaviours, but many won't. Here is, I suppose, where I draw my line. I won't pursue those who won't, but I'll still wish they'd get it.

So beyond teaching our narrow fields, we are teaching the professional cultures of our fields and how professionals in our field act. Very true. But we exceed our station if we start teaching general etiquette. Our students will learn what they will and reap the benefits of a liberal education. Or, they won't.

Sfrajett said...

It sucks to be seen as an enforcer. Who exactly is supposed to come down on plagiarism? Agh! It's so easy to expect "someone" to notice it, but the customers are always right?

This is a good lesson about the conjunction of ethics and capitalist consumerism.

On another note, it seems as if drawing the line on a police chase is the only way to have dignity. Especially if you feel as if you have been left twisting in the wind. Still, one can teach professionalism with an eye to their future public interactions, and maintain both authority and dignity.

It isn't right to have to feel so alone when it comes to simply trying to have an atmosphere of exchange where civility makes it possible to have opinions and still be respectful, though.

I like this discussion.

lil'rumpus said...

I like this discussion as well.

I have a conflicted relationship with the idea of the performance of "professionalism." My conflict turns on primarily class and gender lines personally, but also has issues of culture, ethnicity and race in the mix.

I actively resist taking on anything resembling a "mother" or "mommy" role in relation to my students, but this is different from the concern that I have with the category of "professionalism." Some (not all) of the norms that have emerged around the style of interaction and behavior that characterizes the "professional" tend to, for me, operate their exclusion towards identity categories that have less social, gender, class, race, privilege. Issues as close to a person's identity as diction, dialect, accent are often (though not always) disciplined by professionalism. Moreover, their is an issue of access (to education, to 'C'ulture, to a diversity of people, to money) that is presumed in some (not all) of the norms characterizing prefessionalism.

Also, I am in a department of a different field than my own and the norms governing professional courtesy are different in this field than in my own. Different in the nuanced way that makes the differences difficult to identify and pin down, but felt even more strongly as a result.

As a result of all this (and some more thoughts that would take up way too much space), I tend to focus my attention in class and out on exposing the classist, sexist etc. operations of some of these standards while at the same time giving the students the ability to perform them if they need to.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with the last comment on professionalism. And I would like to add some further scattered observations.

I seem to detect a clear tone of 'superiority' in this whole discussion, i.e. as if we always start from the assumptions that students are 'raw' and need to be taught manners and their teachers are some semi-gods that know how the world works.

The very usage of the word 'civility' is in subtle ways rather offensive (it implies the existence of 'uncivilized' people). Issues like not sending emails from usernames that don't resemble theirs, etc. what difference will it make?

Does teaching manners mean enforcing the rules by which many social environments work? And why should this be 'moral'? There is a whole discussion going on about how 'formal' work environments (i.e. consulting or business world) or academia is getting and how this is just a smokescreen for power games, hierarchy and ultimately the disguise of mechanisms that do not necessarily assign the best posts to the best in their job.

Is this what we want to teach to students? Then 'manners' become just a synonimous for "let me exercise my power and feel for once that I do impact on people's lives". Unfortunately, while this could be an excellent way to release stress, it is something that we SHOULD NOT do to students. And it is something that many of them sense no matter how sophisticated the teacher talk is (and ultimately nobody can save teachers who act in this way from being pitied by those sensitive enough to understand what's going on).

I just quote a piece of the original post, which I think explains very well why these concerns about 'manners', 'professionalism' and 'civility really hide some other kind of frustrations:

"Or, some of us who HAVE experienced quite a lot of pressure to "act like a girl" in the academy--ie be daughter-like or mommy-like in legible ways--still might not mind being Miss Manners, because there's something satisfying and powerful about putting young louts in their place. After all, Mary Poppins understood that most of the fun of being in charge was being PERFECTLY superior in every way."

I think we need more HUMANITY and RESPECT for each other (starting from the teacher respecting the students as human beings and not as some little children to be "raised"). The latter is not something you teach through manners, that's only the illusion of respect, or an idiom of 'respect' that is much closer to the reverence of the powerful than anything else.

App Crit said...

There seem to be several issues requiring explication, as some points are well made, but predicated on assumptions not necessarily implied in previous posts.

Teaching manners, respect, and civility within a professional context is entirely appropriate. Teaching manners, respect, and civility simply because we can, because we can make students uncomfortable until we post their last grade or sign their letter of recommendation, well, of course that's a fair bit offsides. I don't think anyone's advocating that.

But within the professional context, I'm quite sure many would see that, by modeling these very things, we are in fact paying our students respect. We are creating in our learning communities a forum that promotes humane debate, and respect for ideas and the persons advancing them. If we've made it to this level of the profession, then we understand its place and importance (unless one suffered more than the typical number of grad school horror stories). I'm quite sure none of us would hav e-mailed our dissertation committe chair or our own provost today from an e-mail address along the lines of ""

As professors, we define the profession for our generation, and offer its contributions to the next, who may in turn choose to redefine it for their own generation. Professionalism is generationally dynamic, diachronically adaptable. The standard of professionalism modeled by scholars in my field even twenty years ago is not someting I would assume today. As our professional values change (not to mention social values), so do our professional conventions. Yet, there is some timeless value in assuming membership in a profession, in relating to the tradition of our disciplinary culture, and interpreting it for ourselves and our time through our scholarship and our teaching. Within it is both change and continuity. By rejecting professionalism, therefore, simply because we reject the conception of it held by previous generations, we are limiting the students' experience rather than empowering them to do what we ourselves have done.

All around, an excellent discussion.

shrinkykitten said...

Interesting points. As far as anonymous' questioon about emailing from an account that resembles the student's name -- this is just a practical matter. So often you get an emails from "toohottforyoubabe@hotmail" and then the student doesn't sign it. Also, emails from such an account could be spam, and many of us might choose not to open it.

For me much of this relates to evals as well. If I enforce deadlines (as an adjunct, deadlines are important because if you are only on campus a couple days a week -- you need the papers turned in when the are due in order to be able to grade them) or enforce rules in the syllabus, enforce classroom etiquette - as a woman, I am more likely to be seen as deviating from gender norms and am likely to get low evals and more hostility/resistance from students.

I posted a discussion of this on my blog in relation to this great article I found yesterday.

I can't tell you how reassuring I found it - but I feel (as I noted chez moi) a bit stymied about what *I* can do to deal with/prevent disrespectful behaviors from my students.

Oso Raro said...

Witchy Poo is flying in on her broom for une commentaire breve.

Firstly, let me say, loving the blog, Miss Sfrajett! I would also love to write you, but you have no contact info listed here, so write me and let's talk. My email is on my blog.

OK, end of billet doux. This topic is something I have been trying to work out a bit in a series of post on my own blog to La Lecturess that have been excruciating to write, partially because of how we become inculcated into culture(s), and the power dynamic of those inculcations. Bourgeois propriety and manners go hand in hand in our minds, but that doesn't mean that working class cultures didn't have, at one point (and still have, really), their own sense of manners and ennoblement (aka "home training"), which I think is an important historic fact. Manners weren't only for the bourgeois. And many of us who were brought up in these working class paradigms (often reinforced by the smack of a hand, but still) were often shocked at the dearth of manners among the "better classes" when we finally encountered them.

Manners, that rare commodity in a brutalist society such as ours, smooth the wheels of social discourse, enable people to work together, and establish paradigms for interaction and involvement that is professional or apersonal (i.e. not family, friends, lovers, etc). Whether we like it or not, professors do serve as paragons of particular categories of propriety, which is both good and bad. Part of this comment string rightly focuses on students' lack of manners as lacking the "humanity and respect" cited earlier, in their treatment of education professionals as household staff. The most formal emails I get are from working class students, who are fully aware of the paradigms of power behind addressing the professor. The rudest, from self-centred middle-class and upper-class students who think you are a glorified cachifa.

I think manners, their inculcation and their value, are all about humanity, because they are *social*. They compete against the vicious and angry society we have created around ourselves here in the USA (which is so anti-social it should be considered an experiment in socio-pathology, IMHO). A true culture of manners are not just about treating your superiors with respect, they are about treating *everyone* with respect, from janitors and service folks to the University President. They are about NOT assuming your innate superiority (although that is easy to feel in a society that does not honour manners, viz. Sfrajett's Mary Poppins reference), nor presupposing the relationship of people to the social hierarchy. While professors bemoan the lack of manners in their students, we also generally have terrible reputations among university support staff for being rude, arrogant, never saying "thank you," hell, never saying "hello."

I'll never forget the look on the face of the janitor I spoke with at the end of one semester, when I had a late class that was filling out evals. I stopped, said hello, and basically told her what was going on in the room, and that they would be done soon. She looked at me, kinda curious, and then said, "thank you for letting me know." What I think shocked her most was that a) I actually *saw* her, and b) I could speak to her as an equal, not as a "Professor." She was a professional, as was I. A colleague, not of the classroom variety, but of the institutional kind, which is equally important. For instance, without her labour, my classroom would be an awful place to teach in. But we tend not to see this kind of labour or value it. Very telling about how we conduct ourselves as professionals and people. Obviously being working class helps (because you are hyperconscious of the closeness of the staff and yourself), but sometimes learned class lines make it hard to broach the barrier and have, in short, manners. Manners aren't only about pleasing the boss.

So, all in all, I think we can *model* manners as we model other approaches to things like teaching, research, intellectualism, etc. Does that mean we are like an army of pointy school marms floating around on umbrellas? If ONLY! No, but it does mean that when we "educate" we are demonstrating more than just ideas in a book, and our behaviour of manners, again not one of acquiesence but of respect (including respectful disagreement) does serve some social good, I feel. I'm not Mommy, but I am a citizen, and this is how citizens in a republic (as theoretically ours is, for now) can behave: equal respect and humanity for all we encounter.