Do we get rid of the notion “public service” or do we reinvent it with the moral authority it requires?

My apologies for wordiness.

I was wittering about on Twitter yesterday, and somebody’s comment caught my eye, and then in the way of Twitter, it disappeared down my timeline, and I lost it. But the pith was: “it’s time just to get rid of the term “public service” because politicians are all about the money and feathering their own nests.

I certainly understand the cynicism, as it has been the prevailing sentiment about politics and, to no small degree, government employees, throughout my lifetime. I grew up in a family where working in government or politics meant serving your neighbors. Throughout the US, leaders in small towns do such public service every day with very little hope of lining their own pockets on part-time salaries. When I stepped into what became my adult world, that was so not the sentiment. “Why do you want a degree to get the a….government job?” sneered one MBA after another. Politics was crooked and lame, instead of the necessary, if often messy and difficult but potentially honorable work of sorting out collective futures for shared lives. It was the purview of losers who couldn’t hack it in the private sector, marked by lower salaries and “union protection” instead of the raw talent private sector firms thrived on according to its own mythologies. No matter what size it really is, the government is too “too big” (ever notice how nobody is ever asked what the right size of government is? It’s just always “too big” no matter what size it is.)

Donald Trump is, for me, the final, unfortunately logical, outcome of the folksy Reagen revolution where people decided that the world was simple, there was good and evil, and the simple facts are the private enterprise (both business and philanthropy) was good and government, especially the welfare state, was terrible. That government had only two real missions that boiled down to one: 1) ensuring social (read racial and class) order so that 2) the wheels of business could turn and make everybody (supposedly) richer. Democrats joined Republicans in supporting mass incarceration and one war after another, ensuring our own impoverishment through our lack of investment in our own young.

And so now we have government-by-grifters, whose fans love, rather than deplore, the naked exercise of state power by a petulant strongman they think will hate and punish all the same people they do. Gramsci, fascism, etc, and the rest of us befuddled by a man so entirely without any public ethics besides “Me first” that it has laid bare just how much of our executive leadership has been regulated by the honor and self-control of prior leaders, now utterly absent in the ones we have in men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell (who just got his Russian pork for helping get Russian mobster Oleg Deripaska out of sanctions; the emerging global world order is now a visible crime state, and while horray for workers in Kentucky, is this really what we are doing now? Really? )

If we ever get rid of our grifter-in-chief, whither the institutions he has so degraded? I’m seeing that question everywhere, and I don’t know what to do with it. Do we attempt to regulate the presidency so that we no longer rely on norms and expectations about the prudential use of power, or do we re-commit to judging our leaders based on precisely those virtues? And, in turn, do we re-commit to expecting it—and honoring it—in all our representatives, as well as in the people who work in our institutions day by day? Americans seem so utterly ungrateful to other people, from teachers to janitors in our public buildings, that I am not sure I can ever envision us doing right by them anymore.

I’m not fool enough to believe in a prelapsarian where government and politics were all shiny and truly democratic or representative. The US government has been hamstrung since the beginning by bargains struck to immiserate slaves and indigenous people for order and power for European settlers and subsequent generations of white people.

But I do very much worry about who steps into the power vacuum left once government work and politics becomes so hopelessly stigmatized as the purview of the rotten and hopelessly self-interested because it strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we don’t want those people in charge.

I can also see the value of just getting rid of the pretense, if that is all it is, that people can behave virtuously in the exercise of power and, simple as that, put in so many limits and accountability checks that people who hold the reigns on state power don’t go to the bathroom without sunshine laws and effective oversight making sure it’s legit.

I don’t know anymore.

What role does gratitude pay in feminist mentoring?

In the universe of feminist pedagogy, I support approaches that de-center mentors in favor of prioritizing students and junior faculty. The decks are so stacked for the tenured faculty vis-a-vis more junior people that you have to think about mentoring here as an exercise of using power ethically. Groveling for whatever crumbs you get thrown from the great I Am is bad for both student and mentor (who is trading a real, gratifying relationship for cheap power trips).

That said, I’ve been encountering a lot of drive-by Twitter proclamations that dictate what your students are entitled to and how you are scumbag, unprofessional faculty member if you don’t do them. I recently found a very snippy Tweet about not answering emails in a timely manner, about how that’s “unprofessional” and students deserve better.

I am guilty of this one. In my defense, I get 100+ emails a day, and those are not spam. I try to get the ones from students as fast as I can, but I try to limit the hours I spend on email, and I have to admit, sometimes I put it off.

What struck me about the tweet was the tone. Now, Twitter is what it is, and nobody needs me to tone police, but I also kinda wondered about all of it: so many of these smell of a) faculty sending out “how you should be” messages that are essentially virtue signaling that these actions are the Right Way To Care About Students because they do them that way and b) projected anger from graduate students who feel like their needs aren’t being met and can’t direct that anger safely at the faculty who aren’t helping them. Neither are all bad, but neither are exactly speaking to truth to power in the manner I suspect their authors think.

To wit: no, I often don’t answer emails right away. But my students–all of them, including my undergrads–have my cell phone number. If a student needs something, they can call or text. If they prefer not to do those, then I hold between 8 to 10 office hours a week. If they don’t want to do these, then I guess they have to wait until I get my lazy ass around to answering emails, which is usually about once a week, on Friday afternoons. Sorry. A better person would think about student needs 24/7, but I got old and sick and couldn’t do that anymore. Does it help that I feel guilty?

I think all this is reasonable. I am sorry that I am not great at emails, but I’m not, and I’m pretty damn stretched most of the time. And moreover, I am not willing to accept “professional” as the behavioral standard I am expected to work to. “Professional” has always been a way to reinforce hierarchies in my experience, and I find the fetishization of the concept in the academy to be a worry. My university–like most–are puh-lenty corporate and willing to treat students like customers and me like retail salesperson vending shirts (btw, I don’t’ think retail salespeople should be expected to endure the emotional abuse of being happy clappy all the time, either.)

Too much of this “customer”/professional business reduces everything about my relationships with students. If we want to be nasty about it, ‘professional’ may mean you as a student are entitled to a timely email response to class-related questions, but then I get to kick you out of my office if you start telling me about your life if it doesn’t strictly pertain to the class? Your hopes and dreams? Screw that, I’m not a guidance counselor, and every second I spend with you smiling and nodding and supporting is a second out of my hide. I could be researching or relaxing.

I don’t listen to hopes and dreams or, conversely, dreads and worries because it’s my *professional role.” I do it because it’s what I think the old owe the young in payback for all the ways we were supported when we were young and trying to get where we were going when we were coming up. It’s human, not professional per se. I do it for students because I happen to be in a university, but I also listen to people on the bus and at the farmer’s market, and lots of other places because it’s good to support aspirations.

I do this not because it’s my job but honestly, out of gratitude to professors like Professor Jackson at the University of Iowa who listened to my prattle when I was 18 and wanted to be a classics professor. There strikes me as a great deal about being a mentor that is about paying back by paying forward. I will never, ever be able to repay Randy Crane for the faith he demonstrated in me as a wounded, fucked-up, social disaster of a PhD student. So I did my best by trying to be a credit to him, saying thank you (awkward though it was for both of us), and doing for younger people what he so sweetly did for me. Was he perfect? Nope. Am I blind to his flaws? Nope. But he saw all my flaws and stood with me anyway. And to me, that’s about as good as anything gets, ever. Ever.

It leaves me wondering about what all this “hey tenured professor shithead, do your job and attend to us with less power” stuff does to gratitude. Nobless obliges stinks, but I have to say, ingratitude stinks, too. Maybe institutions that run off noblesse oblige poison things like gratitude. But for me, I feel better in all this call-out culture of progressivism being grateful, too, even as we demand better from people who have power. At some point, we are all just limited, broken things making out way in the world, and gratitude and grace strike me as pretty important in all this.

Note: I should probably add that if you haven’t been a student of mine, you don’t get to have opinions on how I treat students.