Mean and Green in Academe

Are you educating students in your new hometown or showing off?

Brian Taylor

November 12, 2013

Question (from "Troy"): People in my new town are so wasteful. I've come here from a graduate school in a place where everyone recycled, shared bikes, brought their own cloth bags to the farmer's market, and so on. Here in the Wasteland, people drive gas guzzlers, throw beer cans in the street, and get fatty, unhealthy, greasy foods to go or junk food from the local big-box monster store.

I'm grossed out when I see what students are wolfing down before class: sugary soft drinks, candy bars, French fries in wasteful plastic packaging. I don't want my students to grow up despoiling the earth like this.

How can they learn about sustainability, clean air, and nutritious food when their environment is so poisonous? (I'm a new instructor, living alone.)

Answer: Of course you want only what's best for your new students in your new town. No doubt you favor goodness and wellness. And yet ...

Ms. Mentor is distracted by the tone of your letter. There's a rumbling of self-righteousness that she could diagnose as some kind of post-graduate-school stress syndrome. You're thinking: My graduate school and its town were perfect, and now I've been thrown out of Eden and plunked down among bumpkins and barbarians. Woe is me!

Ms. Mentor always sympathizes with "Woe is me!" as it represents the human condition. We come into the world crying and spend much of our lives whining.

All of which isn't going to get your neighbors to wash, curry, and file their leavings into neat categories (wet, dry, spongy, fetid). It's not going to induce them to turn off the TV and spend hours hauling their wretched refuse to the town dump, on their bikes—uphill both ways, all year round, in the snow, beset by locusts.

Ms. Mentor needs to calm down, and so do you.

She reminds her flock that the only behavior we control is our own. It does not improve the world if we tut-tut at strangers. Ms. Mentor reminds all scolding ladies and hectoring gents that unsolicited criticism from strangers is not education. It is a rude invasion of privacy. Sidewalk commentary is permitted only when something catastrophic is bearing down: "Erupting volcano!" or "Assessment-committee meeting!"

Academe's doctoral graduates often get the idea that they're superior in social and political awareness. People who get Ph.D.'s do have many virtues: perseverance, time-management skills, resourcefulness. They're also trained to be competitive. But there's no award for being More Holistic Than Thou.

Ms. Mentor suggests you examine why you're so irritated by what amounts to local customs and culture. If you're steeped in the idea that East or West Coast cities have the only cultural values that matter, you'll make yourself wretched—and attract sour colleagues who'll make you feel worse: "Western civilization is dying here, replaced by football. You've been Exiled to the Provinces. Abandon hope."

You may have a bit of missionary zeal, a feeling that you owe it to your students to share the Truth about Everything—now that you're a Ph.D. Some Ph.D.'s do, indeed, convince the public that they know all there is to know about nutrition, medicine, or any other field under discussion.

But you can get caught. When "Leonard" was pontificating on the elevator at a literature conference, a graduate student called him "Doctor"—whereupon a fellow rider asked for advice about a pain in his abdomen. Might it be his descending colon?

"I couldn't possibly tell you," said Leonard. "I only operate on semicolons."

As for "Troy," Ms. Mentor thinks it right and good to "live green." But are you living in harmony with your environment, teaching yourself to understand your students' world? If they work full time, if they're disabled, if they're from troubled families, if English isn't their first language, if they live in difficult neighborhoods, they may not have the time, money, and custom to jog, grow vegetables, and keep their lives clean and shining. They may not understand your urban wit. What you think is clever and ironic may come across as snarky, condescending, or bizarre.

Ms. Mentor thinks you're very lonely, as people often are when they're thrust into an unfamiliar environment. It's easy to blame those around you ("oafs," a Ms. Mentor correspondent called them a few years ago). You can even learn some local slurs. But that won't make you happy, or less lonely.

Ms. Mentor suggests immersing yourself in the local culture. Don't criticize what you don't understand. Dive in. Go to town-council meetings; study the local newspaper. Eat lutefisk and poutine.

Check out unique local festivities: Cochon de Lait, the Potato Bowl, Syttende Mai, Czech and Kolache, Shrimp and Petroleum, the Mummers Parade, Groundhog Day.

Volunteer for local groups promoting the values that you would like your students to have: food banks, Meals on Wheels, tutoring, recycling, Habitat for Humanity. Look for guest speakers for your classes. Do a favor for an elderly neighbor and ignore her cigarettes. Her health is not your business.

If there's a one-of-a-kind public event, be there—as "Jeff" was when the body of a local criminal was exhumed. Jeff was the only member of "the public" who turned up to watch, and the local officials were delighted. They bought him a beer and a ham sandwich. He assured them it was a great treat.

Don't be thinking about what grades you'd give everybody.

It's a melancholy truth that no one will ever fully meet your standards. No one fully meets Ms. Mentor's standards. But you'll be happier if you value generosity and curiosity. You'll be a better teacher, and if you like yourself, maybe someone else will like you, too, and you'll have a buddy for riding bikes, sipping green tea, and raising young zucchini.

Question: My students call me "Phyllis" or "Mrs. Hooper," because I'm young and they think "Mrs." is more respectful than "Miss." It feels arrogant to insist on being called "Dr. Hooper." But even though I feel like an impostor and a fool, should I announce on the first day of class, "Call me Professor Hooper"?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor congratulates her readers on surviving October, also known as "Exploding Head Syndrome Month." For the rest of the semester, she urges them not to make lists of things undone, and not to manufacture worries. November and December are Dust Bunny Months. Let them grow.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries, as well as nominations of excellent academic novels with colorful murders. Those are particularly gratifying to the intellectual reader in the dead of winter. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle's forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are changed. No one will know about that time you ate a greasy doughnut and hid the evidence in someone else's yard.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is