Monday, July 16, 2007

Groomers and Trainers

Consultants have encouraged a culture that deifies them, happy to be the subject of prominent profiles in the pages of the Style section of The Washington Post or The New York Times Magazine...Dennis W. Johnson, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on consultants, said their ascendance is, historically speaking, a relatively contemporary occurrence and, he hoped, a passing one.

Watching Washington Week last night we were depressed by the extent to which the political analysis concerned image and political game-playing. Was Bush sounding tired? Was he hunching up, fidgeting, shifting his gaze when journalists asked hard questions? And how was the game going for Republican and Democratic hopefuls? The blogs and mags on the internet are full of intensive and extensive analyses of style points scored, gambits and end-runs. Within the left blogohemisphere the received view is that progressives have lost out in the past because of their failure to connect with voters' guts and have lost out to the Right because of it. The online literature is full of discussion on how best to make the gut-connect.

I suppose they're right--and that is horrifying. Who we elect, and the policies the US pursues, depends on an elaborate political strategy game, on candidates' grooming and "body language," and on the gut-connect. This is especially depressing to me given my line of work. The only useful thing I do in my job is teach undergraduates how to be clear, tight and rational and preach at them endlessly and forcefully about not thinking with their guts. Most don't believe me (they don't fool me) but they know that they jolly better toe the line because I'm grading them. They'll thank me when they're grown up.

When I first started teaching I got adverse evaluations with lots of comments about my appearance and a few saying that I was "disorganized." The remarks about disorganization baffled me: even though I didn't actually plot out every day of the course by date on a grid and give it to students on the first day of classes, as I do now, I had a clear, detailed syllabus and each of my lectures was in sonata-allegro form. And then I realized: it was because of the way I dressed. Organization by their lights was logically equivalent to grooming--it was about "looking professional."

At that point I knew I had a choice: I either had to dress up or make my classes so ultra-organized that there was no way they could get me on organization. And I did. I carefully ration any remarks that aren't strictly on topic--even when they are in fact relevant to what I'm talking about, and interesting--and avoid making comments that could be construed as "tangents" (as students put it) until late in the semester when I've won over some of the students and those who really hate me have stopped coming to class. This is what I hate about teaching: that straitjacket, the constant performance and people-pleasing that stresses me out and exhausts me. Even after all these years it still doesn't come easily or naturally, I'm always thinking about it, always working at it, always stressed out and chronically angry at students for demanding it: they say they want classes to be interesting but if I deviate even slightly from the straight line they zap me on evaluations. I'm sick of the constant performance and people-pleasing act. That is why I hate teaching.

It isn't that I think image, people-pleasing and packaging are "superficial." It's part of what I'm paid for and I do my job. At least, being tenured, I can get away with not dressing up if I work like a dog to compensate. It's just that I find it so difficult, stressful, and exhausting to work at it and invariably fail anyway. What I wonder is why people impose these demands on themselves and others. Why the endless, stressful, exhausting game-playing, politicking and strategies? 90% of our energy is burned off as heat without doing any work--all that time, effort and pain to dress, to feel out social situations and to please, to negotiate and go through elaborate routines before getting down to business.

The worst of it is that life and death hang on it: this is how we choose the people who run the country and try to run the world. We elect the communicators and people-pleasers whose performance has been perfected by groomers and trainers collecting focus group data. Like my students, the American public complains that politicians speak with forked tongue, that their responses are canned, that they're perennially politicking, cutting deals, and playing to the house--but at the same time demand the performance, image and packaging. No politician dares to play it straight: they're in the same business that I'm in and the demands are much, much more stringent. Americans boast that they "vote for the man, not the party"--which is to say they vote for the image rather than the ideology or agenda.

Now we are living with the consequences of gut-voting. Bush got in because he had a bad accent and bought a faux-ranch as a backdrop for his performance. And it's not as if Americans' disillusionment will make a difference. Now Lakoff et. al. are advising Democrats on how to harness gut-power and the image competition is, if anything, escalating. I'm sick of the whole damn thing which is probably inevitable given the system. If students demand that I put on a good show it's harmless. I produce slick powerpoints and have an elaborate scheme of post-it notes and markers in my books so that I never look like I'm fumbling. Nothing of importance hangs on what I do: colleges can afford to hire faculty as entertainers. But we can't afford to treat politicians as consumer products--and still haven't figured that out yet.

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