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A Mix of Stross and Smiley

October 27, 2012

A recent review of The Highest Frontier by neuroscientist Matt Weber calls the book a “mix of Charlie Stross and Jane Smiley.” While vastly flattered by this comparison, I take issue with some other points. An Amherst grad, Matt admits to being “sensitive because one of the running jokes is that Amherst once accidentally admitted a robot.” Come now–surely it’s obvious the book makes far more devastating jabs at my own alma mater, and at Kenyon where I teach?

Coming from Amherst, why does Matt object to a book about “a girl from a well-heeled political family” who seems “protected” from  dire events? Do we detect a bit of upper-class white male guilt here? Don’t we notice that the “girl” (sic) is also a Cuban-American (who speaks Spanish half the time) traumatized by the death of her brother?

As a professor I’m acutely aware that, no matter what the economic circumstance of my students–who come from vastly diverse levels of privilege–they all face tremendous burdens and challenges. Some of my undergraduates complete the equivalent of the research I did for my Yale PhD–on top of double majors, two or three campus jobs, and supplementing scholarships with unimaginable debts. One student’s parent died, and she had to leave school. I was able to hire her for research, and help her complete her degree.

And, yes, like Jenny, they do face social issues, such as sexual assault. Like Amherst (see NYT), Kenyon has a mixed record of handling such cases. Many readers of HF said I should have written differently the way the college treats her attempted rape by a fraternity. (Oops, now the fraternity lawyers will complain–that has happened to me, after I posted critical remarks about hell week on my website.) But for every case that gets handled at all, there are ten times as many that just get “smoothed over.”

A plea to academics: Whatever their backgrounds, do not patronize our students. Every student in my class is someone of enormous potential who faces formidable challenges.

2 Comments
  1. Heteromeles permalink
    October 28, 2012 2:56 pm

    Amen to that! It’s not just sexual harassment or assault, either. During my long college career, my last two grandparents, one parent, and one aunt all died. And a roommate committed suicide. I was unluckier than most, but the simple math of the situation is that kids enter school as their parents enter the prime age for heart attacks, while their grandparents reach the ends of their lives. It happens to a lot of kids.

    Often advisors and labmates become vital lifelines for each other, as well as lifelong friends. Thank goodness for the vast number of faculty members who step in and become a surrogate family for their “kids.”

    Oh, and if you’re clinically depressed, I’ve got two recommendations: tell someone close to you who can act as your lifeline when things get bad again, and don’t think that going to grad school in a different state will help you outrun your depression. That’s the lesson I learned as the surviving roommate. Pass it on.

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