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Feb 04 2007

The professor and the jerk

The gripping tale of a young spinster aunt’s feminist epiphany

The year is 1983. I’m in year 5 of a four-year liberal arts program. Portents abound to suggest that my contributions to Western civilization will be few, if any, and destined for the realm of the ideal rather than the practical. By which I mean, I disdain to do much but lounge around the ancient ivy-smothered quad and smoke pot.

Then one day for no particular reason I elect to attend one of my classes. It’s a distribution requirement course, Psychology of Sleep and Dreaming. The class is almost entirely populated by male undergraduates because the professor is a 30-ish sylph with long blonde hair whose most frequent turn of phrase is “nocturnal penile tumescence.” She is absolutely in earnest about the Psychology of Sleep and Dreaming, and seems sadly unaware that her students’ apparent enthusiasm is merely adolescent prurience.

On this particular day the professor interrupts a lecture describing the apparatus used to measure male boners, and excuses herself for a few minutes. When she returns the dudes snigger and mutter and scratch their balls at twice their normal rate. I wonder about this briefly, then go back to staring blankly out the window. After class, returning to the quad to smoke more pot, the male students are atwitter with titillated delight.

“That was so decent!”

“I can’t believe she did that!”

“Yowsa yowsa yowsa!”‘

My enquiries into the origin of all this excitement produce the intelligence that our professor had been wearing pantyhose at the beginning of class, but that this suggestive appurtenance had been entirely absent from her person upon her return. Inferred entirely from the results of unflagging male pantyhose surveillance is the hypothesis that the instructor is such a sexed-up wanton slut that she can’t refrain from dashing out mid-lecture to hump something.

I glance back into the classroom. The professor is framed Vermeerishly in the ancient Gothic doorway, motionless at her desk in a beam of sunlit dust, staring pointedly out the window.

I quit school again soon after this episode, and find myself working as a barback in a nearby campus beer & burger hangout. The Psychology of Sleep and Dreaming professor is there, too, moonlighting as a waitress. We do not acknowledge our prior teacher-pupil relationship, either because I’d shown up at her class so infrequently that she doesn’t recognize me, or because it’s embarrassing, this banal shift in our mutual fortunes.

I’m behind the bar, washing beer glasses on the electric BarMaid (TM) during a busy dinner shift. An altercation has broken out. Some jerk is dissatisfied with the level of servility the professor has expressed while providing him with his $3 hamburger.

The disagreement escalates. The manager is called. The jerk vituperates. He grabs the professor’s arm and proclaims, “This thing couldn’t waitress her way out of a paper bag!”

The professor wrenches her arm away and turns on him with a venomous majesty.

“I,” she snarls, “am not a thing.”

Whereupon my mind is blown, and there does stir in my nascent obstreperal lobe the first faint vibrations of humanity.

30 comments

  1. Heraclitus

    “That was so decent!”

    Nice. Your blaming skills are always razor-sharp, Twisty, but my impression is that your posts have become much funnier in the past month or so (funnier than they had been for a while, not necessarily funnier than they’re ever been). Your skills with the humorous turn of phrase seem to be on the rise. For instance, pretty much every line of this post. I don’t really have a point; just wanted to register my appreciation.

  2. thebewilderness

    That is what I screamed at the teevee a few days ago when Shrub showed up at the NYSE and the ever patriarchially accommodating Phillips declared that until the coming of the Shrub, the most interesting thing on the floor had been their intrepid reporter on the scene. How is it possible that in the year 2007 a woman could refer to another woman as a thing.

  3. Joanna

    I wonder, was she then fired?

  4. Alexis

    I had a similar experience in highschool. We had an assembly and my super-fine english teacher was the first to speak. As she approached the mike, the male students in the bleachers whistled at her and shouted lewd comments. She stopped instantly and called down the students who had whistled at her and made them stand up in front of the rest of the school, while she tore a huge piece off them for treating her like a piece of meat.

    The rest of the school year she made an emphasis on having class projects that cracked our minds open about how men and women are treated differently in everyday life.
    Seeing her demand to be treated with dignity inspired me to study feminism, and to fight for my own dignity.

  5. June

    Um, as a woman who occasionally has to wear hose, I have to say that there are other, non-sexual reasons for removing them mid-day, such as getting a huge run in them.

  6. J

    “‘I,’ she snarls, ‘am not a thing.’”

    What’s interesting about this remark is that it starts a tale of resistance to a lot more than patirarchy, but to objectifying oppression in any form.

  7. BubbasNightmare

    You remind me how a small rock, once thrown over the edge of a stony cliff, becomes an avalanche at the bottom.

    BTW, The Dialectic of Sex is turning into an interesting read that I would never have picked up were it not for Twisty.

  8. deciduousfruit

    10 reasons to dismiss “liberal arts colleges” as sanctuaries of liberal thought

    10. girls pointedly not shaving pits/legs in an attempt to distract their female colleagues from the fact that they don’t actually respect themselves or their bodies

    9. the lack of a greek systems means avoiding boorish males is actually much harder at small lib. arts colleges

    8. the masculine, pro-patriarchal nature of the intellectual boner many lib arts students swagger under the burden of

    7. the temptation to tell one’s advisor that you know he was having an extra-marital affair with his last advisee every time you meet and the fact that everyone inclined to such gossip treats male professors’ daliances with their female advisees as some hawt rite of intellectual passage

    6. having to put up with the raunch, sexbot appreciation, and other degrading commentary comming from the priveleged middle-class white males you’re “friends” with just so you can sit in the quad and smoke pot sans confrontational patriarchal smackdown

    5. the female 20th century American history professor having to explain to her colleague in the physics department that, despite her focus on women’s studies, a female 19th century French history professorial candidates with backgrounds in women’s studies should not be dismissed since “we already have one of those, right?”

    4. Greco-Roman centered curricula only encourages phallic worship (i.e. giant dancing phalluses being “stroked” by scantilly-clad undergrad bacchantes during a humanities play)

    3. listening to dudes discuss the hawtness of erotic lesbian love in the class discussion of Sappho’s poetry

    2. said males getting pissy after class as they sit around bashing the “feminazi” response to their desire to discuss the possible existence of dildos in ancient greece rather than the value of having a lone female voice represented among ancient texts

    1. having only three out of 27 in an almost entirely female course on Gender and Sex admit to being a feminist (god knows one wouldn’t want THAT sordid little secret to get out on such a small campus!)

  9. Mandolin

    Much as I did not love Sarah Lawrence, it seems to me that neither Twisty’s story nor the ten list took place there, which is a point in the university’s favor.

    I found this an incredibly moving piece.

  10. edith

    But deciduousfruit, don’t the women usually say they ARE feminists, they just have a healthy appreciation for boorish males and “virile” advisors?

  11. Jezebella

    deciduousfruit, I went to a liberal arts college and it was not at all like the one you describe. Rather, I learned to question authority, think critically, and have the nerve to speak my mind. There were no scantily clad bacchantes, my pot-smoking pals were not remotely raunchy or sexbot-appreciative (at least not out loud), and everybody in my Sociology of Gender class identified as feminist. Maybe you MEANT to go to a liberal arts college and took a wrong turn down Ag Lane?

    Also, I’m pretty sure you equated hairiness with lack of self-esteem in #10, though it’s hard to tell from your convoluted syntax. Is it possible that you’re just bitter about liberal arts colleges because you didn’t manage to pass Comp 101?

  12. Amy

    Persons to whom it does not occur that hose are often freakin’ uncomfortable, and therefore something one might wish to remove from one’s person in a timely fashion, should be taken out at dawn and shot.

  13. Claire

    I remember attending an Art History lecture as an undergraduate in the mid-1990s. The lecturer was a women’s studies specialist, and she was explaining how Art History is usually told from a white male point of view. At this point a row of white male 18 year olds walked out, and apparently made a complaint about her.

    Unbelievable that people like them exist really.

  14. ChapstickAddict

    I can’t speak for liberal arts schools, but I did recently graduate from an engineering school which boasts a 20% female population, so naturally I got teased a lot from my male peers for openly being feminist. Although, I was shamefully not open enough about my feminist views, because the dudes I had to work with always wanted to discuss such things like the degrees of gayness or freshmen girls (“Get ‘Em While They’re Hot!(tm)”), and I was too concerned with getting along with my groups versus “alienating” them with my “feminazi dogma”.

    One of my eye-opening projects for feminism was a capstone for my German minor, where I had to research feminism in Germany and write 20 pages (in German, naturally) about the past 150 years of the various movements. I don’t have a nice anecdote to tell, but it was just amazing to read about the feminists that lived before there was a word for such a person.

  15. Victoria Marinelli

    As ever, your storytelling skills are astounding! Rarely do I find radical feminists (or, for that matter, any other variety of ‘overtly political’ writing creatures) who so favorably err on the side of storytelling, versus specific screed-issuing. (Conversely, I have just as difficult of a time with those who tell stories for the sake of doing so, when those stories are bereft of any substantive or relevant political content.) The balance you achieve between art and politics in your prose is as enviable as it is ultimately inimitable.

    As with the late Molly Ivins (may she rock on in peace), you use humor in a way that seems effortless (although I’m certain it isn’t), and to fabulous effect. I’m not one for hero-worship (I swear!), but when writing like this makes my jaw drop for all its egoless brilliance, I can’t help but drool adjectivally; forgive me.

  16. Victoria Marinelli

    Also, WRT to the puerile students’ bizarre presumption of mid-lecture professorial humping – had I been there, I’d have assumed there was a ‘dammit all, is absolutely necessary for my period to start at such invenvenient moments as these?’ issue at play here.

    That pantyhose (detestable, cumulatively expensive components of the Femininity Uniform that they are) have a tendency to develop midday runs, as others have noted above, is also clear, however, I rather doubt that the poor woman would have actually interrupted her lecture in order to address that problem.

  17. Cass

    This made me sadder than anything else I’ve read in some time.

  18. Anne

    The prof may not have been fired, just working for extra money. About the same year, one of my professors could have been seen mowing the university lawns for extra cash because the professorial pay was shite. Along came a dean, and there issued an immediate raise.

    In any case, the story was moving and left me wanting more, Twisty. Did you go back to school? Take some WS courses? Write a thesis or two on the inherently fucked nature of the system?

  19. Twisty

    “the story was moving and left me wanting more, Twisty”

    Excellent! Then I succeeded. Thank you.

  20. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    All these stories make me happy I attended a small technical school for night classes. Since most of my fellow students and I had shit day jobs, it increased the seriousness of our study habits. And kept the frat-boy monkeyshines to an absolute minimum.

    My pot-smoking skills only suffered temporarily and were happily resumed upon graduation.

  21. Alie

    This is why attending a women’s college is the way to go. Shortly after graduating from a seven sisters’ school, a friend called to ask me if Wellesley made her so strange (and by “strange” I mean “liberated from the patriarchal pressures most of society succumbs to”) that she couldn’t interact with the (progressive, supposedly) people with whom she currently worked. Our conclusion was in the affirmative, but that the understanding that women are actually people was worth the mild awkwardness of breakroom conversations.

    Going to Wellesley was the best decision I ever made; I got to Advanced-level Patriarchy Blaming (GPA of 4.0 in Kicking Ass and Taking Names) without ever having to witness any bullshit like this in class, and the brief respite from the traditional male-centric world was heartily welcome (even if nowhere, even Wellesley, is totally free from male-centricness).

  22. Jess2

    I hear you, ChapstickAddict. I went to an engineering school undergrad, where the ratio was 4:1 male to female. There, any female refusing the boorish yet awkward advances of the horndog male majority was diagnosed with an acronym translated as ” bitch syndrome”. Getting stalked was essentially a rite of passage for most women at my school. To characterize the place as a hostile environment would be an understatement (of course, in engineering school, the hostility usually begins with professors toward students and then spreads from there). I could recount hundreds of encounters with knuckelheaded patriarchs, but suffice it to say, I went in as a feminist and left as a very vocal one. No environment taught me more about the necessity of speaking up and saying the ‘f’ word loud and proud.

    Fast forward to grad school at a large, elite, West Coast liberal university where most of my classmates had gotten their bachelor’s degrees at small, liberal east coast schools. One woman sat in the back of our first year seminar and tallied up the number of times women spoke vs. men and complained that the classroom was male dominated (despite being more than 70% female, 28% evolved male, 2% clueless male) and hostile to women (’cause the class was taught by a white haired man during the first half of a semester, though we had a female professor the latter half). Meanwhile, the whole semester, this woman never opened her mouth whilst I (loudmouth that I am) had my obnoxious hand raised a plenty to take part in the classroom debate. In fact, far from being male dominated, I would say that class was Jess-dominated (what can I say– I was into the topic and I talk too much anyway, as evidenced by my verbose posts here). There was some real patriarchy at the school (e.g. only three female professors in a department of 20 and a chair who felt like that was a sign of progressiveness) but I was baffled by the characterization of ‘hostility’ when I had just emerged from an environment filled with aggresive patriarchal assholery and found the grad school version of patriarchy-lite to be mainly symptomatic of lingering cluelessness of well-intentioned people and slowly changing institutional norms. I’m not saying the latter can’t be insidious and dangerous, but let me suggest that when the revolution comes, we start smashing the windows at engineering schools first. Well, actually, let’s start with Bob Jones University and Hooters and go from there.

  23. ChapstickAddict

    Jess2, at my engineering school, we have R.I.B.S.: Ratio-Induced Bitch Syndrome. It’s the term for when the women take “advantage” of the fact that there are so many men here fighting over them. Of course if the situation were in reverse, there would be no term for that. Men are players, right?

    I, too, entered a mild feminist, and left more vocal (and with a better understanding of what patriarchy and feminism actually mean). I tried to be pretty vocal in class, but I found that the women I took classes with would mostly answer in a “cutesy” tone, perhaps to illustrate the fact that even though they had a good point or a right answer, they were still “just a girl”.

    However, I was lucky in that I got to meet Gloria Steinem just a few months ago, because she came to give a lecture at my college. I even got her to sign my copy of Ms.!

    And Twisty, please tell us more about what happened afterwards. I, too, was left hungering for more.

  24. Scratchy888

    I have long had fantasies of exactly how I would deal with a situation in which I was grabbed by the arm and called a thing. Naturally, if it happened during a time when one was free, such as walking around without a boss overseeing one, and so little threat of firing and reduced possibility of being charged with assault, well then this would happen differently. But suppose the grabbing took place in a restaurant in which I happened to be serving. Or it could happen in any similar situation in which I was not free to be my own person and assert my own character in a way which I see fit. In that case, I’ve determined that the slippery slope of feminine ineptitude might just as well be exploited, especially insofar as incredulity about feminine eptitude is everywhere. So, given these background social factors, I’m determined that if ever grabbed or verbally assaulted, then t’would seem appropriate that my arms would flail around me. I should exhibit a jump of surprise, as well, and at said moment my palm should reach out to target the assailant’s bridge of nose, with such a thrust as to cause blood to start jetting. This will all look totally reflexive and appear to be an effect of my being startled.

  25. k

    Thanks for writing this. I already know it’s one of those stories that is going to stick with me forever. And that’s a good thing.

  26. su

    Fantastic. What a tonic this is. I was getting pissed off because the ONLY blog post I could find in oz about the Geoff Clark case (high profile civil suit for rape) suggested he was unfairly treated- and this on one of my favourite left wing blogs. I am so fucking furious I could spit. I know where to come now for inspiration; this was just wonderful.

  27. octopod

    Twisty: Thank you for your story. It’ll stay with me. Pity about that class, though; it sounds genuinely interesting. The neuroscience of sleep and dreaming is a damned cool field, based on the two lectures I’ve attended on it. Sorry about the cobags ruining it; there was, unfortunately, probably someone in there who was actually interested, buried under all the idiots. Was the prof still teaching when she was working as a waitress?

    The question of whether women are, by and large, treated respectfully at the small tech school I attend is a constant question for me. On the one hand, many of the guys here certainly don’t ever bother questioning the conventional stupid generalizing shite about “women”, and regularly parrot things from various cultural sources that make me wince and point out to them what they just said — not to mention the constant pissing and moaning about “The Ratio”. On the other hand, if this pointing-out succeeds, they sometimes realise that this class of “women” to whom they are referring so casually also include a lot of their friends and are startled that they’d never thought about it before.

    And then, of course, there are a good number of our guys who’ve actually stopped and thought about it, and pay attention; for instance, my roommate, who is wonderful. Yesterday he was reading the news over my shoulder and began musing aloud about the curious existence of a link between penis-possession and perceived leadership competence. I think Chancellor Merkel was involved.

    In classes, I’ve got to say, the proportion of women vs. men who will speak out when they have an answer is probably disproportionately skewed toward women, but we’ve got a lot of kids here, guys especially, who are so incredibly shy they wouldn’t be caught dead talking in class, even to answer a question. I, of course, am a loudmouth and when we’re asked a question, I’ll answer with another question if no-one has the answer. But I do talk a lot, to be fair.

    Scratchy888: I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s put thought into what she’d do under such a circumstance. My fantasizing, though, has largely gone into thinking about how I might prevent myself from immediately and reflexively whipping out the utility knife I carry on my belt, or otherwise failing to control myself in a manner that’d end up with injuries for multiple parties and a court appearance for myself. Gnosce te ipsum: I’m a violent spaz with a large radius of personal space when it comes to strangers or people with power over me.

  28. deciduousfruit

    nope, full-on, hardcore liberal arts school experience par none. ivy league but fights off ivy as it is an “invasive species”. and in the North West no less.
    so what? well… my point was that, like twisty, I only got around to pulling my head out of my arse my senior year only to find that all that “feminist” struggle I’d pursued the first three years of my undergraduate experience meant little when I took into account the fact that I was complicit in many pro-patriarchal activities disguised as feminist exercises… in the name of academia! thanks to two exceptionally ballsy women. I can’t say that I’m all that sorry that I didn’t attend an ultra-cool almost all female lib arts college like Sarah Lawrence or Smith… would probably have been just as boring. But I digress. You can say what you want about being liberal, but liberal arts are not liberal when it comes to women’s rights… nuff said.

  29. deciduousfruit

    pps. I didn’t exagerate. your own private idaho might have been different but mine involved giant dancing phalli being stroked by undergraduate, skantily glad females. Did you miss out? perhaps. but not really. I assure you, no ammount of pabst can make that vision go away.

  30. Jezebella

    dfruit, I didn’t see anyone here claiming that a “liberal arts” school is “liberal” politically or socially.

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