Sunday, January 29, 2006

Schoolhouse Rocks

The relationship between a professor and a student is of infinite variety. Of course, so far I've only been on the student side, but if you stretch the pedagogical role of the teaching assistant enough, I suppose I could remark a little on the other side as well. I've had unusually good relationships with professors, both male and female. I'm always a good, diligent student, and so they've been great at recommending me for fellowships, honors societies, graduate schools, and have even given me TA-ships. But I suppose it's some strange part of me that elicits the avuncular/motherly response from professors, such that while I've been professionally commended and promoted, in private they seem ready to break out the milk and cookies when I come by. I almost hate that I so readily elicit protective responses from even total strangers, much less the authority figures in my life. I'm one of those people whom everyone at the airport wants to help when they see me struggle with lifting luggage. I'm one of those people that even bouncers at nightclubs (jazz clubs, mind you) smile at and ask if I'm from out of town. Maybe it's because I'm 5'2", petite, and a perpetually young-faced Asian-American woman. I don't know. But how is it that year after year, I get professors who ask me "how are you doing" with such concern and care? How is it that each year, some professor will draw out of me not only my career aspirations, but also the non-academic impediments to those aspirations. Usually it comes about when they ask me where I went to college, or why I'm not applying for that exchange program or conference in Chile, and boom, life story comes out. Before I know it, I'm confessing my weird family history with the dad who never let me go to a school I couldn't commute to, to hell with the admissions letter from Berkeley or Cornell, and the gendered expectations in my family, where I'm smart enough to go to grad school, but not smart enough to handle high-stress or overly prestigious schools. Solicitous professors then become sympathetic, and I feel as much a kid as I do an aspiring colleague. I"ve broken down crying in a professor's office once, shocked, SHOCKED at how my once straight-A average has turned into a straight-B average (I got over that). I've written many a heartfelt thank you note to several profssors thanking them profusely for being so kind and sympathetic when I was contemplating dropping out of law school, and now that I'm dreaming the, er, impossible dream. All of that makes me feel very young, and very weak, and acutely aware of how I have benefited from the counsel and kindness of teachers. Yet rather than feeling simply grateful that I've had such good experiences with professors, I'm kind of irritated at myself for not being self-sufficient enough to have gotten through all of these academic hurdles on my own.

But I shouldn't complain. We all need help in life, and if you can't turn to your non-English speaking immigrant parents who don't' know or really care about how academic life is treating you so long as you bring home the diploma one day, I guess I was lucky I could turn to my professors. How do professors feel about their students? What did my professors make of me, a chatty, pastry-baking, enthusiastic, theory-loving, email-sending, hand-in-the-air-front-seat-sitter? I don't know. I think they loved me for my enthusiasm and remarkable trait of actually reading the assigned texts and asking questions about it. But for a professor's perspective, check out Untenured's diary at Slate:

Today I bumped into a former student, the incomparable young B. I met B. last year, when he was just a nubile freshman. B. had liked to let it be known that he had already read everything we were going to read in class "for fun." He spoke in aphorisms, quoted Pynchon and Nietzsche, and wrote me daily e-mails requesting that I answer his arcane questions about the finer points of deconstruction. I would awaken to find his daily missives addressed to "yo, professor." He stalked my office hours on a regular basis to seek my advice about philosophy, literature, life and, of course, his glorious future. In short, for a good 15-week span of time, we developed a relationship of sorts.
But that was last year. Today, I catch my first glimpse of his sophomore self. When he sees me, he saunters over and says, "Hey, professor." I say, "Hey, B., what's new?" He says, "You know, I'm taking this grad course with Professor N. (He lingers over the word grad). I say, "Wow, that's great!" (Professor N. is, in fact, a friend of mine, so I actually am quite pleased.) But does he stop there? No. He says, "Professor N. is really cool." I'm still fine with that. Does he stop there? No. "Professor N.," he says, looking at me intently, "is who I want to be when I grow up." That's just fine, I think. Professor N. is smart, hip, sexy, and gay. I wonder if B. has any idea. Then he narrows his eyes and delivers the zinger: "I took an undergrad class with him, too. He really knows how to handle a class." Okay, okay. So now I want to turn around and shriek, "So what am I, chopped liver?" Teaching often leaves one feeling a little like chopped liver. It is like some intense romance which retroactively turns into a one-night stand. But weirder still--it is like a one-night stand you keep having over and over. Students come and go but always stay the same age. I sometimes have the feeling that I have had several similar relationships with generations of their slightly older prototypes over the years. But emotional attachment to students takes many archetypical forms: These range from grand, unconsummated courtly passion to raging, unconsummated, stuttering lust. There are more complex forms as well. There is the love one feels for the beautiful young woman who doesn't know she is brilliant and the love one feels for her twin--the brilliant young woman who doesn't know she is lovable. There is the earnest frat boy who learns to think. The boy one wanted to date in high school but didn't. I have always had a particular penchant for young men of 20 whose intellectual excitement translates into a steamy sort of vulnerability. Sometimes one falls in love with a class as a whole, like an adorable Borg whose every part is equally adorable.

I guess I can be described as one of those students in one of those "intense" relationships. Maybe even one of those "grand, unconsummated courtly passions." I don't know how I feel about that. It's complicated. For most of my life, I've struggled to stay away from the cliche of having a teacher crush, and it's largely worked. Plus, as I've said, most of my professors in college were really old men or really cool women, and so there was no actual physical attraction. For some reason, all that changed in law school, where half the professors were really old men, yes, but the other half were really young--early to mid thirties. Some professors were the same age as or even younger than their students. Some students had more degrees than their professors. It was an odd mix. Plus, since many of us had done some law literature reading prior to law school, we came in with serious academic stage crushes. In my Critical Race Studies program, I and a few others came to our school because of some of the professors, who we had read and admired and looked at adoringly. Law school is peculiar in that because so many professors are old and ugly and still remarking on the Restatements revolution of the 1970s, the young ones, who are often only 5-10 years older than you, can seem pretty hot by comparison. Oh, they are not objectively attractive, but they are under 40, and that's what matters.

So two things changed for me when I went to law school: First, academic crushes were openly acknowledged and the taboo was lifted--we were no longer school girls, and we never took them seriously. We had crushes on male and female alike (the male ones more intense), and even the male professors knew that we had them. It was all a big joke. Discussed openly at the annual public interest law dinner, much to the professors' chagrin. To my knowledge, there was no actual unethical activity occuring. The second thing that changed was that I've accepted the fact that at this point in my life, I'm only an aspiring academic, and I am still a kid. I've much to learn. And the best people to learn from are my professors. So I've made peace with the fact that not only do I have wide, innocent cow-eyes, I use them to look adoringly at those whom I most admire and whose job I want. It's as much envy as affection.

So after struggling with it for the past few months, struggling to understand it, I admit, I am the Incomparable B. I had, and still have, an intense crush on Professor Z, which translated to a pretty intense (on my side) relationship. I wrote the daily emails and asked the arcane questions. I baked the baked goods (mostly apple turnovers, banana bread, I think maybe pie once) and brought them to office hours, which I attended weekly. I even wrote emails during spring break. I have even made mix-CDs of This American Life programs on non-conforming gender stereotypes because they were pertinent to the discussion about Price-Waterhouse's Title VII test for discrimination based on gender. On Professor Z's side, I there was no reciprocal crush, but there was a "relationship of sorts," though entirely appropriate. Professor Z was just a nice guy. Seemed to genuinely care about my career aspirations, and would offer advice, unasked, and ask questions, unprompted. He was genuinely solicitous of my well-being, and without getting too personal, discuss with me in a detached, anthropological manner (my own attitude towards my weird family and how I ever sprang, like Minerva, a fully-formed Democrat, from their Republican heads) the weird gender dynamics in my family where everyone is a professional, but every daughter is still a girl. I think he genuinely enjoyed our hour-long chats about the law, life, and everything. He says it's "sweet of me" whenever I bring him a baked good. He writes in his emails that he enjoys our chats. We concurred on liking The Who. We were both bakers, and he made the best blondies I've ever tasted (besides my own). I got him to sign a copy of his law review article. There are 24 emails from him in my inbox, and those are only the ones that I didn't delete right away for being merely administrative. I don't know how many he would have from me, ranging from the complex hypothetical questions about such and such a possibility for an extremely sensitive plaintiff to a "hey what's up" kind of email while on vacation in Santa Cruz. Like I said, I am the Incomparable B. By virtue of reading and being prepared for class I'm already extraordinary, and throw in the fresh baked turnovers and the fact that I'm reasonably attractive and he's objectively not-so and it's a recipe for a Woody Allen movie or Harold and Maude in reverse. I don't know whether he thinks of me as the brilliant woman who hasn't yet realized that she's lovable, or the beautiful woman who hasn't yet realized I'm brilliant. Maybe a little of both, but downgrade the "beautiful" to "pretty" and the "brilliant" to "smart," or as he says, "with interesting ideas."

I think every chemically-balanced, non-delusional student who has a crush knows that it's not so much a crush as excessive admiration coupled with job-envy. At least I hope every student does. And I think every professor is probably flattered by such attention, but hopefully not deluded into thinking it translates to real physical or sexual attraction that should be acted on. Ewww. I've had students who've had crushes on me, who have brought me food and presents and written their numbers on their bluebooks--it's always been flattering, so long as it's not physical or stalkeresque. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for such students, particularly the young men who show so much promise, and walk with much swagger and bravado but in private appear vulnerable and insecure about their academic abilities. I've been in those shoes, so I encourage them as I myself have been encouraged. But why is it so easy to have a crush-dynamic in the first place? Why do students grow to love their professors, whether homely or handsome, and why do these busy professors ever let themselves be drawn into such intense intellectual verging on personal relationships in the first place?

Maybe because it's such a special relationship, capable of so many special things. Who hasn't been transformed by a good teacher? Who hasn't been the stutterer in the back of the classroom who was finally coaxed into answering a question in front of the class? Every professor was once a student. They know what it's like. They were probably never the popular jocks in school. They know how much a teacher can do to help make this awkward age bearable. For my part, Professor Z made all the difference in the world to me by supporting my academic aspirations tangibly and concretely. Not just emotional support, though there was plenty of that--but also "did you do this" and "when do you need this letter of rec by." He told me to apply to fellowships--I did. He said it was a good idea to apply to PhD programs in a cognate field to establish doctrinal chops--I did. And so for the first time in my life, I really tried hard to open as many possibilities for myself as I could--mainly because for the first time in my life, someone was telling me that they were real possibilities and not just pipe dreams.

We're all first generation immigrants in my family, and although college, graduate school, and a good, stable job were never considered beyond our grasp, something as crazy as being a non-science person who wants to join the most elite of professions definitely isn't normal. This is probably why I never chose to study high-modernist American literature and critical theory or political theory in graduate school. So going to law school was a big enough revolution, even more so now that I'm actually thinking of continuing onto five more years of school just to pursue a pipe dream. (My sister was a practicing dentist by 25, I'm going to be a little late if I get my first tenure track job in say, 7 years) Sometimes they wonder why I'm taking such a long, hard path. Especially since I'm a girl, and they kind of always thought that I would end up with with a small-practice office in Little Saigon.

I was told not to bother applying to anything other than local schools during the college and law school admissions process, and to not even think that I should waste money applying to Harvard or Yale. I took this to heart the first two times around, although I did cheat a little and apply to other selective private schools, only to be told couldn't couldn't go to Vassar, Cornell, or U Chicago Law becouldn'tI couldn't commute there. But I never did try much harder than that, since they always said that it's better to be a big fish in a little pond than vice versa. So I can't believe that for the first time in my life, I'm applying to Harvard and Yale in earnest. I may have no better a chance than I did four or eight years ago, but even the act of trying is remarkable. And I don't think that I've ever really thought that I should apply to something like a fellowship where they pay you to study. It's amazing what good teachers can do to make their students feel like they should at least make honest attempts at something.

Every teacher is crush-worthy. Once in a while, you get a student like the Incomparable B, and if you scratch the surface, you'll see it's more than a schoolgirl crush--it's the first blush of recognition and acknowledgment that lights up her cheeks, and that is life-changing. So Professor Z, and every professor who ever told me that I can, and should apply to School X will never be chopped liver with me.