Sometimes, in the middle of a busy party, the dreadful anxious feeling creeps in that I am really alone. The cacophony of laughter and friendly chatter assaults my ear, but I am stuck to the floor by spilt beer and by that small voice within saying, “You belong.” After a few drinks, semi-familiar faces become opportunities to mute this pitiful inner dialogue, if only for a moment.
“Hey! We had a class together, didn’t we?”
“Yeah! Um, socio-cultural, wasn’t it?” (Great. At least he knows I’m not just making shit up as a segue to hitting on him.) “You talked a lot in that class, didn’t you?”
“Um… yeah, I guess I did,” I said, laughing. But I was cringing on the inside.
I am that kid in all your classes: the participator. For your own good, you all should petition the school to brand our foreheads with fat, ugly “P”s. That way, you know what classes to drop before it’s too late and you’re condemned to a semester of listening to our self-important blathering and gratuitous lines of questioning. I’ve long made peace with the fact that I am one of those.
What I’m not so sure about is whether I give a fuck what you think.
Let’s slow down a bit, lest I remind you of the main reason you hate me in the first place. I do care what you think, and I want to hear about it. I just don’t care what you think about my letting myself be heard. Maybe I annoy you to the ends of the earth when I talk, and maybe you even think I’m a shit-eating fake. But at least I come prepared, and I’ll never be ashamed of that.
I recently reconnected with my University Writing instructor, Nicole Gervasio, for the first time since freshman year. Nicole is a first-generation, queer student like me, and she has an impressive CV. The recipient of a number of prestigious scholarships and fellowships, she is close to receiving her Ph.D. in comparative literature for her work on representations of violence in postcolonial literature.
What she’s most proud of, however, is her civic engagement, teaching creative writing and literacy to public high school students and incarcerated women. She uses as source material the postcolonial literature that she studies, which, unsurprisingly, she finds speaks to the hearts and minds of her students (often immigrants and people of color) better than the “Western canon” ever could. Nicole is what I like to call an “applied academic,” embodying the axiom “practice what you preach.”
In my first year at Columbia, she gave me confidence as a writer and as a thinker. She showed me how to rein in the naturally fiery voice I inherited from my ditch-digging father—not to subdue it, but to make it all the more incisive. As a scholar, she taught me how to be assertive, yet compassionate, to be proud of my opinions, while never assuming that everyone in the room should find them self-evidently true.
Sipping on sweet iced chais at Joe Coffee, we talked about our respective paths toward a life in academia (mine, of course, barely started, if not already derailed).
We both set out down this road, in the first place, because we’re those kids—the participators. We spent our undergraduate careers crafting our voices, engaging with our readings, raising our hands, and sometimes even challenging professors when we felt a little cocky.
“When I was a senior, like you, I applied to all the big name fellowships—the Rhodes, the Marshall, all of them.” Wearing a superb shock of every color, with tattoos traversing the length of her arms, Nicole stood out against the regulars at Joe: a sea of soi-disant deviants, bleakly uniformed in normcore blacks and greys.
“They all rejected me,” she grinned. “When I had my advisor read my application essays, she said, ‘Well, no wonder! You made yourself out to be a rabble-rouser, like you want to change how everything in academia is done.’”
“That’s it!” I thought. I’m a participator. But I, like Nicole, am a participator of the troublemaking kind.
I’m not at Columbia to toe the line, to fawn over my professors just because they have the word “distinguished” in their title. I’m here because I have a mind, and I want to use it. Of course, this will often mean giving deference to minds greater than my own. But, it will also mean knowing when I shouldn’t. Perhaps this is what drew me to academia in the first place: The pursuit of the academic is supposed to be the pursuit of knowledge and truth, not of the good graces of peers and mentors.
Sometimes, though, the thought creeps in that it might be nice to be a participator of the suck-up, sycophant variety. Nicole and I admitted to each other that, at times, our troublemaking tendencies have, needless to say, gotten us in trouble. Professors might claim to be society’s last great champions of open dialogue; they might tout themselves as being masters of impartiality and intellectual zen; but, to quote Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so. Some of them want you to join the horde of acolytes or get out. Call them out on it if you wish, but, take it from me, prepare to be excommunicated.
Perhaps with age—the number of years that they can point to when they appeal to their own authority, growing ever higher—professors become intransigent. At this point, it might be fair to say that it makes little sense to challenge them. Still, speak up for yourself and for your peers. Max Planck wrote that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
So, start getting familiar with it. That begins with you speaking up in class when you have finished listening.
The Core, for instance, will continue to be predominated by “dead white men” so long as we allow them to run our classrooms from the grave. Understandably, you might feel alienated from the conversation in the first place—unsafe. But, it’s one thing to whine about it in extracurricular contexts, or to write op-eds that your professors, I’m sorry, will probably never read. These things are fine to do, but only as rehearsals for that moment at which you demand to be seen and heard in that very space that wants to otherize you.
Nicole has made it her mission to foster this vocal kind of critical consciousness in the minds of her students, from her seminars at Columbia to the halls of public schools and prisons. I say, let’s take her up on the challenge.
For those of you who would rather disengage entirely, though, I get it. You’re tired, or intimidated, or perhaps you’re just not interested. But before you roll your eyes when that kid raises their hand to speak, ask yourself this question: “Are they just sucking up, or are they here to make trouble?”
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher’s assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn’t done “the twitter” since high school, and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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