what i watched last week
by request: alphaville (jean-luc godard, 1965)

vampire by vampire

(Several years ago, I gave a keynote speech at a conference for advisors in the UC system. I summarized it on this blog, and at least one person asked to see the whole thing. But I didn’t have any copies. Well, a few days ago, the day, in fact, that Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at SXSW, my speech turned up. Here it is at last, anachronistic in places, edited to remove a few personal notes lauding specific advisors who were in attendance. I think it’s worth posting, even after all this time. I started by showing a clip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Xander: Since when do we go through all this trouble for one lousy vampire? Excuse me, one lousy potential vampire.

Buffy: Vampire by vampire. It’s the only way I know how.

Dawn: You’ll be fine. You’ll be a great counselor.

Buffy: It’s my first week actually talking to the kids. What if their problems are all weird and tricky?

Xander: I think you underestimate your familiarity with the world of weird and tricky. This job’s perfect for you.

Dead woman: I am not peaceful.

Buffy: That, I can help with. (puts stake through the vampire’s heart)

This clip demonstrates three different kinds of reactions we have when dealing with students. There’s the philosophical theory under which we operate. In Buffy’s case, it’s “vampire by vampire.” There’s the feelings of inadequacy: “what if it’s all weird and tricky?” And there’s the times when you just want to put a stake in their hearts.

I said “we” because I’ve done a little advising in the past. I helped direct senior theses in American Studies for several years, and spent one year in Mass Communications where advising was part of my job description. But I confess, as I stand before you here, I’m in that second frame of mind: feelings of inadequacy. I’m not too worried about the weird and tricky. I’m just very aware of great contributions advisors make towards education, and I know that I’m a rookie when it comes to those kinds of contributions.

I am perhaps the poster child for the infamous “Master Plan for Higher Education”. I attended three different community colleges, going back far enough that they were still called “junior colleges”. I entered UC Berkeley as a J.C. transfer student, and graduated two years later. From there, I went on to grad school, also at Berkeley, and even finished that, although it took a lot longer than two years. Since that time, I’ve also taught in the English, American Studies, and Mass Communications programs at Berkeley, in the Humanities department at San Francisco State, and am currently teaching in the English department at American River College. Seeing that on the page, it appears I’m going full circle: JC to UC, UC to State, State to JC!

My first reaction on being contacted to speak at this conference was simple: “why me?” It’s true that I stumbled around the UC system for close to 20 years, but only one of those years was spent actually advising students, and I’ve been away from UC for a couple of years now. I have no special training for this. “What if their problems are weird and tricky” is a question I often ask myself. I feel inadequate on a regular basis. But I find it helps if I treat everyone I come across as a human being. It’s too easy, working in a huge institution like UC, to forget that these aren’t just stereotypical kids, they’re human beings.

When discussing what topics I might address here today, one that came up was that I might “help understand this generation of students.” “Echo Boomers,” they were called, although I always thought of them as “Generation Y”. I thought this was kind of funny. I’m 51 years old, and my kids are long since grown up and out of the house (one of them runs a mentoring program in the Sacramento school district, in fact). What do I know about this generation of students? But the fact is, I do know a few things about them. And so do you.

They’re human beings, for one thing. Most of them are young … not all, I was in my 30s by the time I got to Cal … but they’re human beings, and although they might not believe it, we were all young once, too. That cliché pays off, I think. Not because we know what 50 Cent is saying on his new album, that’s not what I mean, although I suppose it helps if you do know 50 Cent, but because all of us experienced similar situations, and they might have been long enough ago that it’s work to recall them. But recall them we must. Because we’ll remember when we were scared, or cocky, or scared and cocky at the same time, and we’ll appreciate what our students are going through.

Student Affairs Officers … how many of you have that title? I think you are the greatest people in the entire UC system. I’m serious. A few years back, I attended the graduation ceremony for Women’s Studies, and there was this woman doing everything: keeping everyone on schedule, patting the hands of the nervous graduates, calming the family and friends, telling jokes. She was the perfect hostess. And I said to myself, “she’s a Student Affairs Officer”, because she knew everything that needed to be done, and she did it, and she was accessible to all. And it turned out I was right. I don’t know what it is about the job, but as someone who has worked in the UC system as undergrad, grad student, and teacher, I thank you from the bottom of my unorganized heart.

In all of this, one thing keeps coming up: treating students like human beings. I know the subject of this conference is “Radical Advising Directions in California”, and I would like to apologize for not being radical enough. All I’m saying is, treat students like human beings, how radical is that? Sadly, it remains a radical stance at alienating institutions such as those in the UC system. My wife has a standard response when I tell her what a good person she is. “I’m just me”, she says, meaning that she can’t take credit for just doing whatever everyone else would do. She doesn’t realize that not everyone is as good as she is, not everyone does the right thing or does their best, so what she sees as ordinary is in fact radical. A similar thing happens in big institutions. It doesn’t seem very radical to treat people like human beings, but sadly, it’s unusual, if not radical, in the UC system. I don’t think this is because the UC system is filled with assholes; the people working for UC are like everyone else. They don’t come to work each day thinking, “how can I screw somebody over?” But the institution makes even the best of us into assholes without our even realizing it. It takes a great, yes, a radical effort to overcome the institutional alienation that affects everyone who comes into contact with UC. I wish I could say I’d always risen to the occasion. I know I did not. I don’t suppose any of us are perfect. Maybe my wife.

But when I think about the people I worked with in my years in the UC system, professors, payroll clerks, custodians, fellow students, big-shots and small-shots, and yes, advisors … when I think about all those people, I can state with assurance that the best chance I had to be treated like a human being was with an advisor.

It is pretty scary for a student when they first come to the university. No one holds your hand, no one takes your life experiences into account, you’re just dropped by your parents on the front steps and told to get good grades. It is imperative that those students have someone, anyone, who can make them feel less alienated, make them understand that while the institution might be oppressive, the people working there might be OK. It isn’t going to happen with the famous professors; the famous professors aren’t often teaching first-years, anyway. It probably won’t happen from the graduate student instructors. Grad school adds neurotic anxiety to the general malaise, making grad students the last people you’d ask for help. It won’t happen from your fellow undergrads, not at first. They’re in the same boat as you, although once you’ve become acclimated to UC, your fellow students are your best resource. No, the place where students see the humanity that does indeed exist behind the institution is with their advisors.

When I was an undergrad, I worked for a semester as a peer tutor. One of my students was a freshman who thought she needed help with her writing. Once a week we would get together, and I’d read over drafts of her various papers, and I’m here to say, she was as good at writing as I was. She needed no help in that area. We got to talking one afternoon, and she told me her story: top-ranked student at her small-town high school, editor of the school newspaper, been writing all her life. But then she got accepted to Cal, her parents dropped her off and wished her good luck, and she felt so out-of-place she came to distrust everything she’d ever done before coming to UC. I told her she was a fine writer, that she didn’t need to worry about that. Further discussion led to the realization that she didn’t know how to deal with Sproul Hall, which is the most bureaucratic building on the Berkeley campus. The long lines, the blank faces, the endless hallways, even the high ceilings were just plain scary. So I told her some of the tricks I’d learned, how to deal with the bureaucracy. It wasn’t much, but combined with my praising of her writing, it might have been the best advising I ever did, and I was still an undergraduate myself.

If we can remember how scared those students are, we’re that much closer to seeing them as human beings. And that’s radical enough for me.

Can I explain this generation of students? Hell no. But I can tell you a few things about them. They have their own culture, and they appreciate it when you appreciate their culture, but they don’t want you to take it over from them, because then it will no longer be theirs.

And what about these “Echo Boomers” about whom I am supposed to have insights? Like every generation for at least the last 60 years, they have a culture that is distinct from their predecessors, and Baby Boomers ignore this fact at their peril. Baby Boomer culture is no longer the center of the pop universe. It hasn’t been since Hip-Hop. So what I would say about this generation of students is simply that they are not us.

And one warning: while you might think being an “out of touch grown up” is the worst possible persona to take on, it is far worse to pretend to an understanding that doesn’t exist. Students don’t hold it against you if you don’t know much about their culture, but they rightly DO hold it against you if you profess to know, to be cool or whatever, when you don’t know at all. And so I taught a course on Buffy, because I knew and loved Buffy, but I didn’t teach the O.C. because I don’t know or love that.

But neither do I want to suggest that there is no common ground on which we can meet. This generation of students wants information. And what students want from advisors is information the students don’t already possess. My experience over a wide spectrum of environments in the UC system is, those students are going to the right people. Advisors know how the system works, know when it is prudent to circumvent it, know which professors can be trusted and which should be avoided. Advisors know how to help students get through college. Professors know about literature, or physics, or foreign languages, and that’s good, you need someone passing along that knowledge from one generation to the next. But you can’t do it without a road map, and advisors are the tour guides. When students find university life weird and tricky, they look to advisors to work around the tricks.

I know in all of this I seem to be avoiding the need to be radical. But I feel like this is radical: to impart to students the inner workings of the institution, to the purpose of removing as much alienation as possible. That, to me, is a radical move, one that is most often taken in the advisors’ offices.

In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus includes two crucial dialogues between men trying to stop the spread of plague in their town. One, a doctor named Rieux, says during the first of these conversations with his friend Tarrou, “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment, I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.”

In their later conversation, it is Tarrou’s turn to speak. He explains why he works so hard against the plague. “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Every time you advise a student, every time you help them maneuver their way through the endless bureaucracy, every time you shine a small light of humanity into the institution, you are refusing to join forces with the pestilences. We can only hope that one day, such a stance will no longer be seen as radical, but will instead be the norm. For now, we go through all this trouble, vampire by vampire.