The committee wants to have a word with her.
… Mikael Sbocniak (department chair) will take the seat in the middle. Tomas Ulrikson (selection committee head for her post-doc interview) will be on his left, with Ernst Lichtenberg (faculty mentor whom she’s met only once) on his right. She’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing them. A triptych of white beards, deep voices, cashmere sport coats. The same look from brewing for decades in the same stock of misanthropic contempt.
Pity. The study of philosophy should have done something for them – made them kinder or more thoughtful – but she’s not sure what it’s done for her, either. Years ago, when she was stressed starting graduate school, she’d have loved to critique the power dynamics of the meeting like this one. She’d be spouting Hegel and Foucault. Now she no longer wants to say anything at all.
I love academic snark. Some of my favorite stories – Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst“, for instance – expose the dark side of the Ivory Towers. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I could tolerate it for long, since I prefer honesty and straightforwardness, if only because it’s easier than keeping straight a web of deceit. But in academia, as in business and for god’s sake politics, those things won’t get you anywhere. I follow many professors on Twitter, usually teachers from moocs I’ve taken, and while they don’t often air dirty laundry in public, it’s always interesting when I get a peek at one corner of the basket. So when I started this story, and found it featured a philosophy professor struggling with her environment, I rubbed my hands together gleefully.
As it happens, I got a lot more than I expected. And it happened so subtly, I was poleaxed before I felt the blade.
In terms of technique and craft, I think the subtlety is what makes this a Best story (if there is such a thing). I think it’s even quite possible that good readers will miss the hints to what is really going on; I didn’t catch on until the third one, for example. Spoilers will indeed spoil that element. But so does discussing how subtle it is, without even revealing what it is that’s so subtle, so too late, so I’m going to reveal more than should be revealed. But I do urge any reader: don’t proceed unless you’ve read the story. It’s really worth experiencing how Millner does it.
Our unnamed protagonist is a philosophy professor whose disillusionment begins long before a student challenges her interpretation of Barthes in class, then storms out while accusing her of incompetence. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with Kant’s aesthetics or, yeah, Barthes, keep meaning to read him, to put much out here, but AFAIK key notions are subjectivity and universality of beauty, and the higher aesthetic perception of form, as opposed to mere taste, the evaluation, outside the realm of aesthetics, of content. I’m not sure how this functions in the story, but fortunately for our purposes – or at least, my purposes – I find a great deal that coincides with the repeated phrase the politics of the quotidian: no matter what we claim to believe, it is in our everyday behaviors that we show what we value, what we believe, who we are.
Just like the experience of riding a public bus, a strange man read her refusal to make eye contact as an invitation to speak.
Who is allowed to belong? The professor asks her unruly student to leave with, “You don’t belong here right now”. She doesn’t feel like she belongs. She never has, it seems, not in boarding school where she “looked different from the other kids” (I skipped right around that, attributing it to unattractiveness or poverty, possibly disability, because our assumptions have a way of steering us around discomfort zones). She certainly doesn’t feel like she belongs in the same room as the three senior faculty profs she’s going to meet with. And the climactic incident occurs when an administrative worker (who is probably feeling the same kind of intrusion onto her competence, and, by the way, as a woman and an administrative employee in an academic institution, probably deals regularly with more than her own share of microaggressions) refuses to help her, demands her ID, and throws her out for requesting help with a computer issue.
If that sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a climax, well, I left out a crucial flashback our professor remembers when the admin tells her she doesn’t look like her photo:
If she looked different in her ID picture, it wasn’t because she was so much the younger last year, it was because the photographer didn’t have the proper lighting. She knew this only because he’d told her as much. It was his way of apologizing for the fact that her face on the ID was an orange smudge.
“These color filters,” the photographer had said. “They’re designed for lighter skin. I hope that’s not a weird thing to say. I don’t see color, myself. But the camera does, and if I had known I have brought different ones.”
“If you had known what?” She’d asked him.
“I mean, they said philosophy department,” he said, laughing.
All these people who don’t see color. What they mean is, they only see white people.
It’s a story about a life lived in the face of microaggressions. Go ahead, mock the idea, but you try being invalidated, just a little bit, every hour of every day in a hundred different ways. Is it really such a burden to ask that we examine our assumptions, our language, and consider what it feels like to be on the other side of the jokes, the cliches, the stereotypes?
I didn’t realize the protagonist was unnamed until I started making notes for this post, and realized I couldn’t find her name. Then I realized I hadn’t read the Contributor Note, which informed me this was a deliberate choice: “I knew I would take one big risk – identifying only those characters who had been accepted by the institution.” I love this choice. Names are identities: “Who are you” is almost always answered with a name. We go through great lengths to remember names as courtesy and as good business. God brought the animals to Adam for naming. To refuse to name her is to underline her exclusion. I feel pretty stupid for having missed it initially.
These are interesting times for this story. The politics of the quotidian. Who we are leaks out in everyday life. Compassionate liberals urge our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, then fume and complain when it takes an extra four minutes at the grocery store checkout line while the cashier figures out the voucher the newcomers must use. Public minded citizens love children and support education yet vote for property tax plans that cut school funding to lower their taxes so they can keep their kids in private school. Committed feminists sneer at pretty cocktail waitresses when Mr. Feminist smiles too long (that one’s for you, Amy Gardner). Who you are shows through what you do, every little bit of it.
I think readers are going to have very different reactions to this story. I think 48.2% will see our professor as sympathetic, 46.5% will want to know what she did to deserve it, and the second group will win because their predecessors set it up that way. And that’s why the politics of the quotidian matter.