Unsure what to write about this month, I asked around for blog post topics people might like to see me explore. Somebody suggested that I write about things that high schoolers should know before arriving at college, so I’ll run with that. Except that it’ll just be about college, it’ll involve the axis of gender, and it’ll be a story from my own life.
My first semester of college, I elected to take an advanced writing course. The course topic was “power” (so “anything”), and it involved reading social theory and watching movies (read Weber and watch Fight Club and make them go together!), discussing the art of rhetoric and the structure of good argumentation, and then writing, rewriting, workshopping papers with the entire class, crying, laughing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.
For much of the semester, this class was thoroughly kicking my ass (and this was after being at the top of my high school class, particularly in the area of writing…oh, high school). More than once, the marginal comments from my instructor (a portly, acerbic, wickedly funny political science doctoral candidate) included nuanced sentiments such as, “Ouch,” and “This is shit.” My fellow classmates reported the same kind of feedback. In a weird way, I liked it.
Late into the semester, I had redrafted an essay arguing for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. I was eighteen, female, and Catholic, and it was my first chance to work through the pain and frustration of those intersecting lines of identity. Incidentally, the topic felt especially appropriate to me given that my writing instructor was also Catholic. I worked very hard on the paper and explored the topic from as many angles as I could handle at the time (Scriptural, Traditional, Christological, anthropological, historical, etc…). I pondered the things in my heart. I researched tirelessly. I wrote and rewrote.
A week after we turned the papers in, I came to class and the instructor stopped writing his preparatory remarks on the board. He faced my direction and announced in front of the whole class, “Hey, what you wrote on women’s ordination was the best paper I have read while teaching this class for the past few years. It was really a model paper, and I want a copy for future iterations of the class.” (He was not big on subtlety or discretion.) He then proceeded to expound upon the virtues of the paper qua writing, qua argument. Given this instructor’s general comfort with brutal honesty, I was flattered and vindicated. This was especially important for me given that I had been in college for two months and had no real idea if I would be able to pass muster in an academic setting. For me, it was sort of an “Okay, I can do this” moment. The profound disorientation of transitioning to college dissipated a bit.
And then we all went home, and everything was amazing forever. The end.
Alas, no. The story’s not over. Here’s the rub. Flushed with victory, I gave the graded (A+) paper to the guy I was with then (and for four years, actually; we can call him College Boyfriend). I wanted him to look at my instructor’s remarks and be happy for me (or did I want approval?).
The next day, he handed me back the paper with an air of somber responsibility, and I noticed in the margins not one, but two, sets of comments: the instructor’s…and College Boyfriend’s. Around the instructor’s exuberant, black-inked lettering lay College Boyfriend’s small, straight, cramped Man-Handwriting in light pencil.
It turns out that my argument needed vital theological corrections, and, fortunately, College Boyfriend was up to the task. He was especially prepared given his conservative Catholic catechesis growing up, his complete lack of theological education at the postgraduate level, and his fear of critical thinking when it came to evaluating the Catholic Church’s teaching. Somehow, although I had researched the topic scrupulously and then had the paper vetted and re-vetted by all of my classmates (many of whom were Catholic) and then by my writing instructor (again, also Catholic), College Boyfriend was able to pinpoint the gaping holes in my logic.
Here are some examples:
-In the middle of my paper, where I am summing up a significant section of my argument regarding the kinds of precedents we should be drawing from Scripture, I state, “The Church claims to be following Jesus’ example, but its subordination of women is incongruous with Jesus’ treatment of women.” College Boyfriend’s marginalia: “Jesus did elevate women; why didn’t he ordain them?”
-Citing relevant scholarship, I make the rather mundane point that it is historically improper to speak of Jesus as “establishing” the ministerial priesthood in his lifetime exactly as we now have it today, especially on questions of gender. To which College Boyfriend writes about the scholar I’m citing: “Is this guy trying to flaunt his ignorance or his mendacity?” [That one still makes me laugh.]
-Me, suggesting various examples of female disciples in the early Church, to which College Boyfriend responds, “See what Paul says about women in the Church.” [I am guessing he's going for something about women's silence with that one. Not sure.]
-Me, saying that the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women from the priesthood undermines the rhetoric of mutually respectful complementarity and collaboration between men and women that the Church nevertheless seeks to promote. To which College Boyfriend replies, “However, in the theological hierarchy of the Church, a woman, Mary, sits far above any cleric. In fact, she exercises a decision-making power that is awesomely close to the divine power. Her fiat hearkens back to God’s creation of the world. Further, she sends Jesus forth on His mission of salvation…At least one practice (admittedly secular as well as Christian) maintains the dignity of a woman as a queen with decision-making power: the marriage proposal.” [Oh.]
There was more, including some commentary in Greek and some corrections to my interpretation of Gal. 3:28, but you get the gist.
At this point, I need to be clear that I have zero interest in talking about the issue of women’s ordination. So, no on that.
More importantly, I need to be clear that my intent is not to poke fun at College Boyfriend for its own sake. We were both eighteen, and I don’t think he would have done this to me later in our relationship, once he had matured a bit. And although I remember being upset at the time, I honestly have no abiding negative emotions associated with this contretemps. In fact, I had forgotten about this until I found the paper when moving a year and a half ago. Looking over it all again, I laughed for ten minutes.
But I’m telling anyway not because I want to analyze him, but because I want to analyze the dynamics behind this interaction, its effect on teenage me, and its enduring echoes down to the present day.
Looking back at that paper, I can obviously see how not-earthshaking it is, but it’s still well-composed, relatively persuasive, and theologically astute, especially for a first-year college student. I also think that I invited conversation, even counter-argument, so I suppose I could view College Boyfriend’s counterstrike in that manner. And we did spar intellectually, all throughout college and about all manner of things, and much of it was good fun.
And yet, the interaction in question didn’t take the shape of a mutual engagement among acknowledged equals. Certain things about it strike me.
First, College Boyfriend seemed to feel some sort of duty to enter into a kind of paternalistic “correction” of my argumentation. He went so far as to mime the authority of the instructor, putting pencil to paper and performing a purifying, masculine gloss upon my marshy feminine illogic. And I wasn’t asking for feedback. I was fairly clear about wanting a “Good Job” and a pat on the back, especially since the work had already been graded. It is very difficult to imagine the roles being reversed and my feeling free to arrogate that kind of power to myself. It would not have happened.
Second, though I was angry at the time, my dismay arose not primarily from indignation, but rather, from a belief in College Boyfriend’s intellectual superiority and a concomitant despair about my own inherent intellectual inadequacy. When I read his marginal comments, I unfortunately didn’t think, “Wow, this is all bullshit,” but rather, “Shoot, he’s caught me. Why would I think I had written a persuasive argument?”
Third, what strikes me especially about this interaction was the supposed rightness of it and just how seriously I took it (and how seriously he took it). To me at the time, it felt very correct and proper that I, young woman, would tire myself researching, refining, and communally vetting and revising an argument, only to have it knocked down by somebody a little more…male. He had no other qualifications making him “better” than me, so what can I say? I never questioned the value of his feedback or the form in which it came to me (i.e., needlessly, with hostile gentility, and without my permission). And I felt implicitly that the way to prove myself would be to take up my role as accused and testify within the trial of masculine exactitude, guilty until proven subdued.
But why rehash?
Because, as puerile as my college interaction was, I wonder about the ways that deference to perceived male authority (and white authority) still constitutes a powerful undercurrent in academic conversations today (and perhaps other women have also had certain versions of College Boyfriend). I’m not saying I don’t want rousing academic debate, but I don’t think we’re typically starting with a level playing field, and we can see this when we honestly take stock of ourselves qua interlocutors in relation to each other. It’s not only about who’s had more representation or whose voices have dominated historically, but also about how these historical and structural dynamics shape our deep assumptions about who has greater intellectual acumen in each individual conversation we have, day in and day out. On the brink of a conflict or even in times of ostensible concord, to whom do we feel we have to answer? To whom do we have to listen? How do our bodies shift in conversation? With whom do we make eye contact? To whom do we give the affirming nod?
When I was eighteen, I believed that my intellectual salvation was vouchsafed by a boy less informed than I. Obviously scoff-worthy. But I still wonder about these dynamics when I teach undergraduate students and when I mingle in the theology department among fellow graduate students. All I can say is that I have had to learn not to shrink when interacting with male colleagues, whether in conflict or in friendly exchange. What have I unlearned?
I hope that when we are confronted by somebody mysteriously arrogating power to himself and demanding that we do all the work to prove we are good little thinkers, we are able to echo my wise college writing instructor and reply, simply, when we can,”This is shit.” I think it would save some energy.