“Jeffrey, don’t you think that she looks just like a grizzly bear?” she asked her brother, pointing at me.
Although I like animals, that remark gave me pause.
On a muggy day in Cleveland, perhaps this child meant to offer a creative meditation on the close connection between humans and others in the animal kingdom.
No -- that was not it. It was an insult, and it was directed at me. I was in second grade with her brother, and she was perhaps a year younger. She could not have missed the social message girls still get: that -- petite, delicate and blonde -- she already was a paragon of feminine beauty. Her remark encompassed my wayward hair and plumpness and maybe included a dig at my gait, too, that sweltering day.
She spoke with a cheerful tone, and her volume was amped up.
That remark was meant to be heard, and it made me crawl a little further into the proverbial shell that my teachers would often tell my mother I should come out of.
Despite my adult ability now to add she learned that somewhere, in my child-mind, I can remember the hurt. I had not yet acquired skills of rebuttal or humor. At home, I was told to ignore what I didn’t like, and although that made some sense to adults, it did not temper the inner jolt.
In another immigrant family down the street, the approach was different. “Get him!” shouted one mother from the porch to her smaller-than-average son as a boy taunted him. She had a few other choice words I won’t repeat.
In colleges we hope that we will no longer be hassled by those mocking our appearance or quirks. Perhaps the scars of being ridiculed may be permanently airbrushed out. Yet, I marvel that when I Googled “bullying in college” I accessed more than 5 million hits, and on Google Scholar alone, 49. And I was taken aback – and disappointed – when one of my own star students of a certain age said that when he speaks up in other classes, sometimes students laugh. I don’t mean to sound like a saint of some kind who guides students who never err, but in my class this individual is respected for his work ethic, revision stamina and kindness.
Is my student experiencing ageism? It takes guts to go to school at any age, let alone to come back to retrain.
I would like to think that today’s college students know better. But if a few don’t, what role should instructors -- or peers -- take?
Several summers back, while studying bullying in a developmental psychology class, I modified my search terms and found studies on empathy education in fields ranging from medicine to early childhood. Though a trait difficult to measure, empathy as a research topic intrigued me. And Olweus and others – in their studies of bullying -- have pointed out that a norm of others’ not standing for taunts – and speaking up to create a communitywide culture of civility -- is a powerful intervention. Olweus’s groundbreaking research of the early 1970s was spurred on further by a tragedy in Norway in 1983: the suicides of three boys who had been bullied. Applying the general concept, perhaps empathetic college students might pick up on any taunt-cue and say “I think his remark is worth noting” or “That comment made me think of…” thus reshaping the dynamic rather than remaining frozen or embarrassed. Instructor anger may be natural, but I wonder if that’s enough.
It should not take a campus tragedy to get those of us committed to academia to ask, “What’s wrong here?” and, “What’s right?” I encountered the word prosocial, coined in the 1970s as an alternative to antisocial. Rather than groups of victim, perpetrator or bystander alone, can there be another: active and constructive?
Unkindness, incivility, microaggression and hate can escalate, and even morph into violence. Either victim or perpetrator may act out, or turn frustration inward. Somewhere in between may lie a brusque culture, where everyone operates with thick layers of character armor, to use Wilhelm Reich’s term. I will zap you before you zap me – with my eyes, my gestures, my posture, my tone of voice, my attention (or lack of it)…
That is not a kinder campus.
“The ability to relate to others in a harmonious way,” as the Johns Hopkins civility advocate and professor P.M. Forni put it in one interview, can be a lifelong aim. Although success may come quickly to some who knock others down, there is another tactic. “Having relational competency, having social intelligence … is a better predictor of success in life and in school than the intelligence that we measure with I.Q.,” Forni has suggested. Ultimately and in the longer term, the quality of relationships does count.
Several years ago I ranted on the phone to a sister, a nurse, at the end of a trying semester. I had seen a new strand of incivility in some classes -- surprising to me even as a veteran teacher. “If you need to teach manners, do it,” she said, very simply. What I felt should be implicit -- due to my modeling, college norms and precise policies – might not always be enough. So I took her cue, and that did give me peace of mind. It need not be elaborate. Just a few lines. “Be sure you are listening when working in a group” … “communication is largely nonverbal” … “no side conservations”…”place your phone on vibrate and put it away, as I am doing right now…”
And from classroom to hallway, one professor shared with me thoughts over a career spanning 40 years and three institutions – one from which he was non-renewed, one from which he retired and one he served after retirement. In the last position the pressure was off, but it was also a civil school. Communication and mutual respect flowed, and things got done efficiently, even with distinction.
And yet, remembering personal wounds might remain a viable tool for prying open the treasure chest of human relations. Last fall, teaching The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (novel, play and movie), I plunged into the text only to reacquaint myself with my own adolescent pain at being different, rarely articulated. Frankie (or F. Jasmine, as she prefers) is a gawky 12-year-old who feels lonely and excluded. She trips all over herself in her anguish to connect to “the we of me” as her brother prepares to marry. Brilliantly portrayed by Julie Harris in the 1952 film, Frankie’s total out-of-sync quality and outrageous moods are cathartic to many readers trained to hold their frustration in. I’ve moved ahead in some ways – and I haven’t in others – and this can be a valuable vulnerability.
Recently, while crossing one campus in a heavy rain, a student I did not know called out to me.
“You’d better hurry up and get inside,” he said. “Or else your hair is going to go ‘poof,' ” he said with a dramatic gesture with both hands expanding outward like a cumulus cloud.
He had no way of knowing he had just crossed the path of a grizzly bear.
“You’re absolutely right,” I nodded.
Perhaps it is possible to consciously work to build kinder campus communities while respecting individual differences. F. Jasmine observes to her steady confidante and caretaker, Berenice, embodied by the talented Ethel Waters on film and stage: “I can’t ever be anything else but me, and you can’t ever be anything else but you.”
And with that acknowledgment, move forward.
This is part of a new column, A Kinder Campus, which explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact email@example.com.