Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Rules

Sisyphus has a good post up in the Lessons for Girls series about insisting on asking for help, part of a response to Historiann's post about mentoring. Sisyphus talks about her friend Brilliant Grad, who in addition to being brilliant has had a whole lot of other gifts heaped on him, in part because he meets people and "thinks about how they could help him," which she's too kind to call a utilitarian view of human relationships (so I'm saying it here).

Although this is in part a gender issue, it struck a chord with me because it's really a class issue, too. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the class dimensions of learning to get what you want, using the example of J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was able to talk his way out of attempting to poison his tutor) as an instance of a kind of social intelligence that's necessary if intellectual intelligence is to result in success. That social intelligence comes in part from class privilege, which teaches you that the world is there to serve you and also teaches you how to talk to people to get what you want. Remember Cher in Clueless, who was so proud to have argued her C grade up to an A? I don't condone that kind of grade-grubbing, of course, but the attitude she showed about shaping the world was exactly what Gladwell was talking about.

As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.

If you let the rage define you, you're stuck with that outlook forever, always blindsided and hemmed in by rules that may or may not have a good reason for existing. But if you use that rage, turn it into observation, and study what others privileged by class (or gender) are doing to remold the world to their advantage, you can learn from it. The most valuable thing anyone learns in this position is that there's a difference between the Official Rules and the Real Rules. If you're born with class privilege, you know this already. If you're not, you need to figure out where that gap lies and what its parameters are.

And you can pass it on. That's mentoring.

Update: Dr. Crazy has some good advice on this subject:Reassigned Time: Scripts for Getting Mentorship: Crazy's Version, as does Historiann.

11 comments:

steph g said...

When you said "you didn’t realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that’s not how the world works for you"... well, you just articulated something I have felt subconsciously all my life but never would have figured out how to articulate. And, well, thanks for that; naming an issue lets you begin to deal with it, which I will now work on.

Ink said...

I found the same quote that Steph identifies to be incredibly powerful! You hit the nail on the head there for sure.

profacero said...

It's interesting -- class privilege helped me as an undergraduate because I knew how college was supposed to work. In graduate school and later, gender non privilege took over more and more. My whole problem was and is spotty mentoring and toxic mentoring.

profacero said...

P.S. Oh yes -- knowing how college was supposed to work, though, did not mean to me that you argued for grades and so on.

It just meant I knew I could ask professors about bibliography in their specialties, that I could stand my ground on sexual harassment, and so on.

So I guess I had a shop steward type of working class values in reality! ;-)

undine said...

Thanks, Steph G and Ink! This is a deeply held belief for me, so I'm glad it resonated with the experiences of other people as well.

Profacero, I thought I knew how college was supposed to work but in reality didn't at all: the idea of finding out about scholarships was entirely alien to me and to my family, for example, and trying to negotiate something like that would have been seen as pushy and presumptuous.

Anonymous said...

"Social intelligence is necessary if intellectual intelligence is to result in success"

How right you are. Sadly, many of us never realise it or have the oonfidence to pursue it. As you (again) so rightly point out - albeit far more elegantly - so much boils down to attitude.

Thank you for a most illuminating blog. A beacon of light for the many who usually "played by the rules".

Carl said...

Thanks for this. These issues are so important.

Like Cero I grew up with the academic game as a second nature, so talking in terms of 'rules' feels a little awkward and artificial to me. Games have rules for sure, but you're not good at games until you've got a feel for all of the play that the rules enable. So it's really not that there are two sets of rules, but that there are the rules and then there's the actual feel for the game.

In this sense I also don't think it's quite right to call Brilliant Grad a utilitarian. I could say the same about women who 'use' each other for emotional support (on blogs, for example) despite not actually caring all that much about the details of each others' woes, but would that be right? It's that he actually knows what people in his milieux are good for, and relates to them appropriately. He's a functionalist, if we must label.

When students interrupt my thoughts at the office door to ask for a staple for the papers they're about to hand in to some other professor, they're in a larger sense asking for an ordinary courtesy. Same thing when students in my class ask me questions that are already answered on the syllabus. But ordinary courtesy is the wrong game for the academic environment and the relationship of professor to student. I am able to give out staples and archive mundane trivia, but those functions are not what I'm specifically good for. It's like using a first edition of Mill on the Floss to hold your bathroom door open. The object will do the trick nicely enough, but you've missed something there.

It's easy to get people to 'do your bidding' if you've properly identified what they're good for according to the specific game they're playing. It's always a pleasure to be recognized for who you are. It's nearly impossible if you try to make them play a different game.

undine said...

Thanks, Anonymous. The "social intelligence" thing is absolutely crucial, and if you're not born with it (as I was not), you have to watch people and develop it over time. That's why mentoring can provide a shortcut to understanding ways of behavior that can seem "natural" to some people but are a deep mystery to others.

Carl, I think we're finding different language for talking about the same thing. What you say about the "feel of the game" makes me think about playing tennis or learning ballet, where you have to school your muscles to perform unfamiliar movements at first but those movements become natural over time. A natural athlete feels that there's less distance between natural movement and schooled movements, just as someone with social intelligence doesn't see the same gap between Official and Real Rules that I do (since I've had to teach myself social intelligence). And yes, "functionalist" is probably a better descriptor than "utilitarian" for Brilliant Grad.

I was struck by this in your comment: "But ordinary courtesy is the wrong game for the academic environment and the relationship of professor to student." If you've been raised not to press beyond courtesy, you're not going to figure that out there are levels of functions beyond using The Mill on the Floss as a doorstop. Even if you're middle class, if you've been raised with the values I've identified, you're not willing to take the risk of being thought pushy, or stupid, or whatever because you've been taught to believe that there's no safety net if you fail.

The confidence that comes with that safety net, whether the net is financial or class-based, is what makes the difference.

Carl said...

I agree about everything but the safety net. I hear that often enough as a critique of 'privilege' and it strikes me as a (sometimes resentful) conflation of different dynamics. It's true that some people are blessed with unearned licenses to fail. Their fearlessness is merely foolhardy. But there's a different kind of fearlessness that's merit-based - if you've got a record of performance you've got cred and can afford to take some risks. And there's a third kind of fearlessness, I'll call it nietzschean, that's about going up on that high wire without a net, as an expression of self-trust and in recognition that no choice is without risk or consequence. We also call this charisma and sometimes admire it most of all.

undine said...

I agree again, Carl. I'm not talking about safety nets for those who already have professional accomplishments but the perception of safety nets (or not) by college-age students when they're deciding to take risks.

Carl said...

Right on.

Btw I loved your examples of tennis and dancing. I did a post a while back on paper writing and grading through the lens of the tv talent shows (So You Think You Can Write a Paper) that gets at some of the same issues of coordination and facility in complex disciplines.

In relation to the current discussion, the frustrating thing with/for bad dancers, bad writers and newbies to the academic habitus is that they don't even know how to see how they're wrong. It's not at all surprising that some of them react with resentful rejection of the enterprise when it turns on them in ways they couldn't foresee. Explicit instruction is necessary, of course, and the student must be willing to learn, but first I think the student has to be able to perceive the beauty of the discipline being done right. Without that it's always going to be a struggle between the adepts and the barbarians banging on their gates.