Empathy Fail

Earlier this evening I was going to write about how I couldn't summon the dudgeon to write the post that I've been mulling over today, but that was before my husband and I tried assembling the foil that we rewired over the weekend, only to have it fail. Now it's all I can do to keep from flinging the laptop across the room, so I guess I'm in the right mood now.

While browsing my friends' updates on Facebook yesterday, I was led by way of one link and another to a series of novels, written, you may be interested to hear, by one of my former classmates from high school. "Ah," I thought, finding her publications on Amazon, "I wonder what her books are like. She says she's interested in spiritual warfare; well, so am I! And it says that her books are thrillers and I like mysteries. Maybe a little too intense for me, if she's going into the darker side of spiritual conflict, but I'd like to have a look. Oh, good, there's a preview."

And so I started to read....

The main character, Dylan (female), is narrating*: "If I'd known enough to be afraid, I would have been. But I was a thousand years younger, then, it seems, and I didn't know what was out there. To me, it seemed like an ordinary day.

"I was making a rare appearance at a faculty event. I hate faculty events. Generally, truth be told, I hate any sort of event. Anything that involves pretending, in a preordained way, to like a bunch of people with whom I have something perfunctory in common. Faculty events fall into this category.

"This particular faculty event was a picnic at Barton Springs in Austin. The picnic was the final fling of a faculty retreat--my definition of hell on earth, speaking of hell. They'd all spent the weekend at a retreat center in the hill country of Texas, getting to know each other. Or bonding, as we say in the industry.

"Imagine the scene. A dozen puffed-up psychologists (I include myself only in the latter part of this description, for I do admit I'm a psychologist), wallowing in all the cliches. Bonding exercises. Trust falls. Processing groups. Sharing. I could imagine few things more horrific.

"I'd begged off the retreat, citing a speaking engagement in San Antonio. A speaking engagement, might I add, that had been carefully calendared a year before, timed precisely to oppose the dreaded faculty retreat.

"So I'd spent the weekend in the hill country too. But my gig involved talking to entering master's-degree students about surviving graduate school. A topic on which I considered myself an expert, since I'd done more time in graduate school than 99 percent of the population of this grand country of ours. Hard time, in fact. I'd won my release a few years before by earning my PhD and promising myself I'd never breach the last frontier--the suck-you-in quagmire known as 'post-graduate education.'

"Over the weekend, I'd let those entering students in on my secret--higher education is all about perseverance. It has nothing to do with smarts or creativity or anything else.

"It's about cultivating the willingness and stamina for hoop-jumping.

"Jump through the hoops, I'd said. Do it well. Do it relentlessly. And in a few years you can join the elite of the American education system, secure in the knowledge that you can endure with the best of them.

"After sharing this little tidbit, I'd decided to take my own advice and jump through a hoop myself. The aforementioned faculty picnic at Barton Springs....

"Since most PhD'd folks spend lots and lots of time bent over books or lecturing halls full of students, they don't get outside much. Hence they tend to be white and lumpy. They are also not very much fun.

"I am not terribly lumpy by nature and try to grasp at any fun that is to be had, being determined as I am not to sacrifice my life on the altar of academe. So while everyone else stayed safely dressed and sheltered on the shore, I availed myself of the dressing room, changed into my bikini, and jumped in the pool...." (pp. 11-12, 14).

Now, things start to get a little more exciting once Dylan figures out how to use the rope swing and encounters the pale man with the hideous scar down his back, but by this time I'm afraid my classmate has already lost me. White and lumpy, are we? Not much fun? Hoop-jumpers who get where they are by dint of sheer perseverance, nothing to do with creativity or smarts? I couldn't believe what I was reading. Was she serious?

Okay, okay, so it's the narrator speaking, not my classmate, but looking at her bio on Amazon, I'm really not sure. Look, she has graduate degrees in psychology and Biblical studies, but she's been working as a private practice counselor for some 17 years. Doesn't sound like she is working in academe. This couldn't be what she really thinks about academia, could it? That nobody has a life as a professor, that everyone involved in (gasp) the "suck-you-in quagmire known as 'post-graduate education'" is, basically, a loser, not to mention not athletic enough to want to swim on a day "hotter than the eyes of hell" (p. 11).

Why? Why was it necessary to set the scene with this condemnation of academe? I don't know what happens in the rest of the book; maybe Dylan suddenly realizes that it is only as a professor of psychology that she can do the kind of work that she most needs to do, but I doubt it. I'm guessing the stab at "the suck-you-in quagmire known as 'post-graduate education'" was thrown in simply as local color (or lack thereof), the kind of thing that nobody really notices, like fat Southern sheriffs or weaselly lawyers. Everyone knows that professors are pasty and dull; it's just window dressing, much like the details about Barton Springs.

I'm weary already of this argument and I haven't even made it yet. I was so disappointed. I remembered my classmate as a classic beauty, blond, long-legged, a talented musician; well-spoken and popular. To judge from her publicity photos, she hasn't aged a day in the 27 years since we graduated from high school. Is that why she managed in her book to drag up all of the old jealousies and snipes that I remember from being, yes, an egghead in a Texas public school? But, wait, she has graduate degrees, too. So what is going on here?

For one, I don't know whom she imagines she is talking about, other than everybody who is less beautiful than she is (you've heard me on this theme before, right?). Of the academics I know, very few are anything close to fat or dull. Sure, we're pasty, but we live in the north and spend most of our lives covered in clothes even if we are outside. But we're far from sedentary. I know scholars in their 60s who rock climb, for goodness' sake, one of them even a psychologist. I fence; other colleagues ride horses, play squash and basketball, swim. I saw one of my contemporaries at my health club last autumn, working out with her personal trainer in preparation for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. And yet, the stereotype persists: socially-inept eggheads hunched over our books, reading while life passes us by.

Who here is "wallowing in all the cliches"?

As for surviving graduate school being mainly about perseverance, well, yes. But, then, what isn't? All the talent in the world won't make up for the 10,000 hours it takes to become expert in anything. Sure, some of us in academia are "naturally smart," but there is a world of difference between having the smarts to write a dissertation and actually sticking with a dissertation (or book) long enough to finish it. Not everybody who is "naturally smart" can do it and some who, on the surface at least, don't seem to be, can. Yes, we've sacrificed ourselves on the altar of academe--read, given up vacations to finish a piece of writing, worked long hours in the library in order to hunt down a reference, stayed late in the lab to get our results--but how is this experientialy different from sacrificing yourself on any altar for the sake of your work? Surely, every athlete who has ever competed in the Olympics recognizes the sacrifices his or her sport has demanded, likewise every artist or author who has finished a work. And yet, nobody blinks an eye when people say these sorts of things about academic work. It's expected to be ridiculed.

Maybe my classmate was simply trying to establish her character as a rebel, an outsider, not a joiner; we all like laughing at others for taking their "bonding" so seriously, right? But Indiana Jones was pretty cool and he didn't need to make fun of his colleagues for not wanting to dare the wilds of archeology in order to establish himself as a hero. Nor did Elwin Ransom have to disown his profession as a philologist in order to survive his interplanetary journeys to Venus (aka Perelandra) and Mars (aka Malacandra). Oh, sorry, is it geeky to reference C.S. Lewis in critiquing a story on spiritual warfare? I'm assuming that we, as readers, are meant to be sympathetic to Dylan. If I've read the cover copy correctly, she is the heroine. So are we supposed to align ourselves with her hatred of faculty meetings (made the more ridiculous by not being a real faculty meeting in the first place) and her conviction that PhD's "are not very much fun" or not?

I'm taking this way too personally, I know, but it's a kind of reverse culture shock. I had no idea that hooking back up with friends and classmates from high school would dredge up not just memories of what it was like being, yes, the Hermione-Granger-before-the-encounter-with-the-mountain-troll of our school, but whole new instances of exactly the same ostracism, even if only at a distance. I am intrigued by the premise of my classmate's book and would like to read further, but not if the preview is any indication of what I am in for situationally. What worries me is that this is what she (my classmate, not Dylan) really thinks and that readers of her books (there are three of them now, books, that is, not readers; I assume she has rather more than three readers) will simply agree. Perhaps I'm wrong. I hope I am. It will be a test of my powers of empathy to see whether I will, in fact, order her book from my local bookstore and read far enough to find out. But if Dylan's character is as my classmate has established it in these opening pages, then I'm not entirely sure what kind of a heroine in the battle against evil she is going to be. After all, she has already fallen into what is surely the most evil trap of all: caricaturing an entire group of people for faults only some of them have.

*Quotations from Melanie Wells, When the Day of Evil Comes (2005).


  1. Is caricature ever anything other than characterizing "an entire group of people for faults only some of them have"? While I certainly don't agree with your classmate's description of academe (I pray it's not true), I wonder: Should we be equally upset that JRRT caricatured the orcs as he did?

    Ultimately, though, all that matters is what you believe your job is like and how you convey that to your students.


  2. Orcs are imaginary, folks with PhD's really exist. The question is whether the folks with the PhD's in Wells' story are meant to have analogs in the "real" world or not. Orcs don't, i.e. there are no real Orcs.

  3. Also, I think you are confusing caricature with generalization. It is wholly permissible to make generalizations (e.g. "It takes a great deal of endurance to complete a PhD"). It becomes caricature when you exaggerate certain elements of the image so as to make those about whom you are generalizing look ridiculous, i.e. figures of fun, and not in a nice way.


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