On Being the 'Other'

When one interviews for a tenure-track position at Virginia Military Institute, the process often seems more like an orientation session than an exploration of a suitable match between the interviewee's credentials and the mission of the institute.

March 31, 2005

When one interviews for a tenure-track position at Virginia Military Institute, the process often seems more like an orientation session than an exploration of a suitable match between the interviewee's credentials and the mission of the institute. From the dean to the last of one's future colleagues, the candidate is reminded once and again of the "unique military atmosphere" that defines VMI; the requirement that all faculty wear a uniform, the fact that all uniformed faculty and staff adhere to military protocol, and that one does not refer to the VMI campus as such, but rather as the VMI Post.

No new faculty member could possibly come to VMI and feel unprepared … at least until she leaves Post for her first professional conference, ready to claim her hard-earned place among her colleagues. 

I had, after all, arrived at the conference with the ink barely dry on the coveted paper reading "Doctor of Philosophy." My name tag would no longer read "ABD," and having completed the rites of passage, I had been promoted from the student panels to the regular sessions, the academic equivalent of graduating from the children’s to the adult table at Thanksgiving.

Donning my first professional conference badge with my pristine title and affiliation, I descended into the welcoming cocktail party with all the innocence of a 1,400-pound Miura bull entering the ring, completely unprepared for the reception I was about to receive from my colleagues already abuzz in the ballroom below.

"Oh, my God!  You teach at VMI?  That must be (we)ird," said the Queer Theorist. (Postmodernists use inventive spelling to distinguish themselves from less enlightened non-Postmodernists, curling themselves up in metaphorical fetal positions within the safety of perpetual parentheses, superfluous slashes, and itinerant italics.) Diving for the last piece of Camembert as if it had some protective quality similar to that of garlic in the presence of vampires, he grasped his sherry glass by the stem with all the strength he could muster, then held the Camembert between his front teeth in breathless anticipation of my response.

Catching my  own breath just long enough to check for full auditory comprehension, and at the risk of sounding Clintonesque in the most unflattering of ways, I dared to reply: "It depends what your definition of (we)ird is."

"Well, you know."

Actually, I didn't know. I had no idea. But it took me little time to learn, and by the conclusion of my third conference, I had developed a theory. We are the "other" of American academe, and by "us," I am not referring only to VMI, but also to our colleagues at The Citadel -- both military academies with a small "a" -- as well as the service academies themselves.

We share a similar professional environment, where academic and military cultures meet, where students struggle to stay awake in class, not from a weekend of partying, but from a weekend of maneuvers, and then march to dinner in well-formed lines; no slouching, no talking, no one out of step with the cadence of drum rolls reverberating off the walls of barracks.  We represent the khaki green camouflaged by the blue, yellow and white within the Derridean Quilt -- mort à la différence.   

It would seem that the liberal hegemony of the ivory tower, obviously compelled to deconstruct the academic-military hybrid, has instead managed to formulate its own binary opposition -- "us/them" -- by refusing to acknowledge a third space defined by neither gender nor ethnicity. None of them would think of asking a colleague from India what it is like to go to class in a sari or a visiting scholar from China how he feels about teaching children of Communists, lest they be accused, tried and burned at the stake of Edward Said's Orientalism.

Yet fascination with the outward manifestations of our "otherness" is fair game. While they have been denouncing the patriarchy, assorted empires and most of Western Civilization as a whole for the marginalization of others, they have taken it upon themselves to create the paradigm for both communal identity and acceptable societal parameters of our teaching/research culture in their own image.

"So what's it like to teach in a uniform?” asked the Post-Colonialist as he turned ever so slightly, revealing UC-Whatever on his nametag.

"Gee, I guess I've never thought about it. You first; what's it like to teach in jeans and Birkenstocks?"

Silence (and no more Camembert on the plate); he has no answer simply because there could be no answer to such an inane question. Obviously the Post-Colonialist links his professional persona to his teaching and his research, not to his wardrobe. Who among us does not? 

But the professional activity of academics that teach at a military school always comes second -- if at all -- to curiosity about the institutional aspects of our positions, especially in juxtaposition with the accepted archetype of the American professor, molded by the political activity of the sixties and cultivated by the visibility of the left-wing power structure within higher education.  

"I think it would be far too stressful for me to teach children of Republicans," the Multiculturalist commented over cappuccino in Padua, after expounding on profiling as a bigoted, narrow-minded policy of Eurocentrists.  

I was tempted to ask if children of Republicans, indeed, young Republicans themselves or -- God forbid -- conservative professors were forced to stay in a closet of their own at her college, whose mission statement, after all, stipulates diversity in regards to race, gender and religion, but makes no mention of political affiliation. Would she have them wear a bright red R lest they enroll in her classes or sit next to her in the faculty lounge?

I shuddered to think how any of us would react to a colleague making the same statement, substituting party preference with an ethnic, gender or religious denomination: "It would be far to stressful for me to teach children of a gay couple … to teach children of Arab immigrants … to teach children of "fill-in-the- blank" (then run for cover). Yet no one else at our table seemed to view her statement as bigoted or even the slightest bit outrageous, as the comment encompassed a group considered marginal but not conceded full minority privileges; no hyphen, no prefix, no slashes or parentheses.

"So," remarked the Feminist, cutting her breakfast sausage into tiny little morsels with both purpose and vengeance, "you lived in Spain during the Franco years and now you're back to fascism." The effortlessness with which she had established her analogy between a totalitarian regime imposed through a military coup and the academic environment in which some of her colleagues and their students have freely chosen, far surpassed arrogance to border frighteningly on ignorance. I imagined her at countless rallies, proudly marching behind her sign "Keep Your Laws Off My Body," and wondered how many times she had become infuriated with the small-mindedness of those who do not respect the right of each individual to do with her life as she chooses.

By the time I met the Feminist, however, I had gone from being caught off guard, to sarcasm, to incredulity and all to no avail, so it was she who became the receiver of my wrath, because there are -- as I pointed out to her -- fundamental differences between "them" and "us" and the students we teach.

We drive to Post each day, some of us dressed in a uniform, yes, but all of us wondering which of our students will be kept out of harm’s way and able to return for their 10-year class reunion. In the "small a" academies, we receive out-processing notification for cadets called to active duty with their Reserve or National Guard units before we can acknowledge one last salute and wish them a speedy return from
Guantánamo or Kuwait or Iraq.

We send make-up work to those who have had a negative reaction to their Anthrax or smallpox vaccine as their units await pending deployment orders.  And be it at West Point or The Citadel, in Colorado, Annapolis, or VMI, we all open our email each day holding our breath, hoping not to see “RE: Taps” in the subject line, to mourn yet again the loss of a former cadet at the hands of terrorist enemies (at VMI we have received six such messages since September 11, 2001).   

Ours is the honor of teaching young men and women who have vowed, like generations before them, to uphold and defend those liberties all Americans hold so dear but too often take for granted. Many of them may be asked to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that the Queer Theorist can continue to speculate over wine and cheese; so that the Post-Colonialist may never have to wear a uniform, unless it be of his own choosing; so that the Multiculturalist may continue to enjoy a cappuccino in Padua, some Bordeaux in Paris, or a mate in Patagonia; and to ensure that no one ever deny the Feminist her First Amendment right to label them "fascists".

But the differences between college students and cadets, mainstream teaching assignments and ours, extend beyond the temporal and spatial characteristics of our respective professional environments and are best represented by the ethical code and personal sacrifices that intrinsically define the four-year cadetship. Cadets live by an Honor Code, which they themselves enforce.  They answer questions truthfully, even if it means personal embarrassment or disciplinary consequences, because they have vowed not to lie as part of their Honor Code, and they leave a twenty-dollar bill laying on the street if it is has not fallen from their pockets, lest they violate their pledge not to steal.  Having sworn to choose “integrity over personal gain," cadets do not copy, plagiarize, or cheat in any other way, and the few that do face the shame of dismissal. Professors at VMI do not take attendance, inflate grades or even proctor exams.

The cadets’ rigid schedule requires a strong mind, body, and spirit, and the discipline needed to meet expectations permeates the classroom atmosphere as much as the parade ground or the obstacle course. Cadets thrive on inquiry and debate, exuberantly entering the open forum of intellectual exchange where their opinions, contributions, and inquest are not only accepted, but welcomed. They realize that understanding another language, other cultures, and respect for different value systems and ideologies will be as vital to their success, maybe even survival, as the firing of a weapon or the flying of a plane.

As for me, I continue to attend as many professional conferences as possible, although admittedly I now descend upon each welcoming cocktail party with the watchfulness of a matador waiting for the Miura to charge instead of the blissful unawareness of the bull himself. Upon returning to Lexington, my Otherness reconfirmed, I often go back to the place I first saw the Corps form and watch in awe just as I did the day of my interview.

It is not the uniformity of the ranks, but the individual commitment and selflessness of each cadet there that inspires the profound respect and admiration I hold for them. This nation owes so much of its greatness to a series of Others -- there have been many. Our cadets are this century’s campus Radicals; I revel in their Otherness and they teach me to cherish my own.


Mary Ann Dellinger is an associate professor of Spanish at Virginia Military Institute by choice. She wears a uniform to class, responds to "Ma'am", and has been complimented on her crisp salute by several members of the VMI Corps of Cadets. The Postmodernists featured in this piece are real.

Intellectual Affairs will return on Tuesday.



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