Acro Collective Greatest Hits: Celebrating 100 Posts!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

Humanities Teachers from Least to Most Believable, a List 

In the midst of radical de-investment in education across all levels and a turn away from principles of liberal education toward increasingly profit-conscious institutional demands, we think it’s time to remember and celebrate the teachers that have captured and nurtured our imaginations.

Despite the supremacy of STEM in the political discourse around education funding, it is the humanities and the arts that occupy our ideas of what it means to have a good education. Our books and movies are populated by teachers whose interest in meaning, history, language, creativity and self-exploration have inspired us with interest in ourselves and the world. The stories we tell are rarely about the math and science teachers of our high school experience, but rather about the passionate, savvy, absent-minded, tweed-sporting humanists of our dreams. While STEM teachers are consistently represented as geniuses or nerds (occasionally both), they are rarely drawn as the custodians of meaning or soulfulness.

In our collective imagination, all English teachers are bright, unflappable salt-and-pepper types with elbow patches and the more profound passages from Shakespeare ever on their lips. Fortunately, this image of the stalwart humanist is as false as it was compelling to our teenage selves. Acro Collective is full of brilliant humanists that not only look very little like the traditional image of one, but are also far more interested in interrogating the zombie as metaphor than in exploring the Meaning of Life.

So below in handy list form we’ll classify the tropes that structure our ideas about humanities teachers from least to most believable. For those invested in semantic precision, you should be warned that we use “humanist” here in the broadest possible way.

7. Professorial Adventurer

Topping the list as the least believable academic to grace the halls of the Ivy League, we have the strikingly handsome and intrepid adventurer who takes breaks from globe-trotting artifact hunts to teach the occasional class before a bunch of fawning co-eds. Think Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code hero Robert Langdon who, though played by the unimposing Tom Hanks, is described in the novels as “Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed.”

Although Indiana Jones carries daddy issues, a fear of snakes and a cocky faith in his own handsome righteousness—honorable humanist pastimes if ever there were any—his pec muscles and capacity to throw a respectable punch put him far outside the spectrum of believable academics. Robert Langdon at first glance fares slightly better. Having invented the wholly fictional academic discipline of Symbology—a field that, as far as I can tell, consists of performing cursory close readings of canonical European art in an attempt to verify various conspiracy theories—he seems to be precisely the image of an academic humanist. But, like Indy, Langdon’s life contains altogether too much gunplay and not enough violent departmental politics to be a true portrait of an academic.

There are men who go on Nazi-punching adventures and there are men who catalog artifacts. These are not the same man, and if they were they would not have Harrison Ford’s jawline.

6. Messianic White Lady

Photo from citizenthymes.com

Without ancient magic or papal intrigue, the Messianic White Lady trope feels slightly more authentic than the Professorial Adventurer. She belongs to a genre of film dedicated to assuaging White Guilt by celebrating “choice” while also insisting that the choices of poor and non-white youth are by necessity in need of reform. “There are no victims in this classroom!” Michelle Pfeiffer proclaims to her students in Dangerous Minds when they remind her that she doesn’t understand the mechanisms of non-choice in their lives.

With nothing but a leather jacket and grit, these white ladies teach their students that rap is just poetry, that the color of your skin is just a cheap excuse for failure, that if you learn to appreciate the immortal language of more dead white dudes you will finally have transcended your circumstances.

What this trope fails to represent is that the awful conditions of schools without resources are deadening to both students and teachers, and that noble intentions and a blind insistence on the individuating pressures of “choice” cannot overcome decades of concerted effort to de-invest in poor black and brown students.

5. Magical Waifs

On the spectrum of benign white ladies, the Magical Waif stands at the opposite pole from the women you find in movies such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. Sweet-voiced and pure of heart, she is the nurturing custodian of childhood. Matilda’s Miss Honey and Jane Eyre’s Miss Temple, for example, usher their charges into young adulthood with grace and care. She is the daydream corrective for every child’s dawning awareness that the world is a brutal and sorry place.

Despite or perhaps because of her remarkable commitment to children, she is also a queer figure. Her gift is to build communities outside of the biological family and without hetero sex or reproduction. As the product of a prepubescent imagination, she exists without desire as a figure of pure maternal offering.

Her saccharine charm is a palliative to the narcissistic child in us all, but for my money, Miss Trunchbull is a far more compelling figure for the beleaguered adult imagination.

4. Tweed with Passion

Do you remember that moment in high school when you read Walden and realized, perhaps for the first time, that you were an individual whose beautiful and unique essence was under siege by the homogenizing pressures of Society? Do you remember the first time an author’s language seemed vital and alive, and you felt as if the words of a long-dead writer spoke directly to your experience, as if you were the intended recipient?

That moment produced Robin Williams’s performance in Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating speaks directly to the teenage soul for whom authenticity and individuality seem like radical gambits and the repression experienced by a bunch of mid-century prep schoolers feels like a vital problem.

It’s hard not to be charmed by this trope. Being told that the aesthetic experience of beautiful language is a viable substitute for political action is enticing, especially to my teenage self who liked to believe that the individual was the most powerful avatar of freedom. We all want that teacher who told us that standing on desks and reading poetry in the middle of the woods is the best way to overthrow institutional authority.

Carpe Diem, motherfuckers.

3. Hot Teacher

Troped most extensively in porn and gross-out comedies featuring teenage boys, the hot teacher/librarian who introduces the pubescent boy to lust is standard fare. She wears pencil skirts and horn-rimmed glasses and chews beguilingly on the end of her pencil when she talks.

J.Lo.’s Claire in The Boy Next Door is a funhouse mirror version of this trope in which her sex appeal becomes horrific rather than joyfully provocative. Though her understanding of first editions is sadly flawed, her version of foreplay consists of quoting The Illiad with young men whose identification with Achilles does not seem to terrify her in the slightest.

Though I suspect rare in most high school experiences, Hot Teacher is mid-list because we’ve all known the embarrassment of crushing on the smart, older authority figure in school.

2. Sensitive Liberal Arts Guy

Photo from The Lyceum Theatre

Here we have Hot Teacher’s masculine counterpart: Sensitive Liberal Arts Guy. We’ve all met SLAG—many of us have dated him. He identifies vocally as a feminist, he has a beard, and he likes earnest conversations about Sartre, tea infusion, and his favorite bars when he went to college “in Boston” (not Tufts).

He may or may not have an affair with a sophomore in his Introduction to Western Philosophy class. This relationship will make him feel authentic and remind him there is joy outside of his own jaded ennui, and somebody—probably Woody Allen—will make a movie about him. He will be played by Josh Radnor or Hugh Grant.

By all rights, he probably deserves to be number one on this list, but I’d rather not end on a depressing note.

1. Miss Geist and Mr. Hall

It is possibly the sticky sweetness of my nostalgia talking, but I think Clueless’s Miss Geist and Mr. Hall are precious and relatively authentic images of high school humanists. Mr. Hall is jaded and curmudgeonly and Miss Geist is impassioned and adorably frumpy. Neither are profoundly effective educators, but both inspire the kind of affection in their students reserved for the hopelessly unhip.

Miss Geist’s enthusiasm does not arouse her students to desk-jumping passion, but rather reminds the selfish and self-involved Cher to look momentarily beyond herself. Mr. Hall’s snarky indifference does not belie a serious intellect, but simply represents a man coming to terms with his own mediocrity. Their romance is not brilliant and unlike many of the other figures on this list they are regular looking people whose sex appeal is totally lost on their students.

To them teaching is a day job that can’t afford them nice clothes, and nothing seems more true to a humanities teacher than that.

Honorable Mentions:

Sybill Trelawney (Harry Potter), who reminds me remarkably of one of my high school English teachers.

Mary Albright (3rd Rock From the Sun), whose mediocre scholarship and need to share an office with an obnoxious goon because of sexism rings profoundly true.

Adventures in Mental Unwellness: Grad School Edition

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

Grad school, though, is a whole ‘nother ball game. Of course, I had been mentally preparing myself for this. But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and quite another to face it head-on. Or, more precisely, to have your worst fears about academia hit you all at once with the speed of a bullet train.

Maybe I’m overstating things a little, but that’s probably as close as I can get to describing what grad school was like for me over the past year.

On my cohort’s first day of orientation, a wise upper year had told us, “Everyone in the program has imposter’s syndrome.” That had been very reassuring at the time, and I’d tried, at particularly difficult moments in my grad school life so far, to recall that statement and to internalize it. And yet my experience of imposter’s syndrome cut much deeper than I had anticipated.

There’s something peculiar about the English graduate program milieu that makes you overanalyze every little interaction you have with anyone else in the department. We are trained to overanalyze what we read, but when I entered the program, it became more and more difficult to disengage from this mode of thinking when I wasn’t studying. I found myself becoming increasingly performative, unconsciously basing my sense of self-worth on the judgment of other people – my professors, my peers, and so on. I think all English grad programs condition their students to think that way – to strive to present or perform better versions of themselves. This is especially true in particularly cutthroat programs that foster competition among their students, but even though there isn’t a toxic sense of competitiveness at UVA (quite the opposite, in fact), I still couldn’t help but measure my achievements and my work unfavorably against that of my colleagues, who, in my view, belonged here that much more than I did.

The more I interacted with fellow members of my first year cohort, the more I questioned my place in the program. They all seemed to be so eloquent and hardworking, but instead of being inspired by their example, I only grew more critical about my own competence. My peers were doing intellectually fulfilling work and networking with all the right people, while I only wanted to watch TV in my spare time. I became more introverted and socially awkward than I’ve ever been, because I was tired of trying to recalibrate my persona to better match up to that of my overachieving colleagues. I could barely make an effort to connect with professors outside of class (even though establishing good relationships with professors had been so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling in undergrad, and was part of what compelled me to apply to grad school in the first place), because I didn’t have a clue about what kind of research I wanted to pursue and didn’t want them to find out I was a hack. Because I was so concerned with struggling to perform a better version of myself, my self-perception became dangerously warped. When colleagues complimented me on a presentation I gave, for example, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were just being nice, because I’d become too unsure about my competence to know whether any of the work I was doing was valuable.

This was only the beginning of the program, and I knew that more challenging work would follow later on. So I expected coursework to be manageable – for my graduate seminars to just be more advanced versions of my undergraduate courses. And that is in fact what they are. But under these particular conditions, coursework became much more difficult than what I had prepared for – I seemed to have become a worse instead of a better reader. Whereas I’d tried my best to be a lively and interested participant in my undergraduate classes, in my new seminars I struggled to utter anything coherent – or anything at all – and wondered if I just couldn’t understand or interpret assigned readings as well as everyone else. Sometimes, in particularly dense texts, words on a page would become meaningless strings of letters to me.

I couldn’t write my essays with the same schematic efficiency with which I was used to tackling them. Essay writing had always stressed me out more than any other type of assessment, but I always tried to be strategic about it: I knew what I needed to do, and how much time I needed, and was able to follow a schedule for the most part, even if the end result wasn’t always satisfactory. Since coming here, however, the strategic game plan I became so accustomed to following had broken down almost completely. This past semester especially, I only found myself staring into the space between knowing what I needed to do for a particular writing assignment and actually doing it. I couldn’t get the words out.

I became terrifyingly ambivalent about departmental social events, because I knew that I would feel too self-conscious to socialize properly if I went, but isolated from potentially fun and generative interactions if I didn’t. I began to sleep too much, or too little. I would deliberately stay up very late, way beyond any legitimate point of wakefulness, because I didn’t really have anything look forward to the next day, other than the work I was avoiding. I’d made myself an emergency pick-me-up YouTube playlist in anticipation of particularly bad days, but on most days when I’ve really needed something to lift my mood, I couldn’t bring myself to even open any of the links. I would just stay in my room, and cry a lot, without being able to discern exactly why I was crying other than because “I was tired.” Sometimes I even struggled to leave my room to do the most basic things, like eating or taking a shower. In short, I became very depressed.

This is not my first encounter with depression. I was clinically diagnosed when I was nineteen. I have been to therapy, and taken antidepressants, though ultimately I’ve found that the most useful thing for me was to do little things on a day-to-day basis to keep my triggering emotions under control. It worked for me in undergrad – for a while, I was “better.” But the thing about depression is that even though it can be treated, there’s no complete cure. It’s like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well, trying to climb closer to the top, and sometimes succeeding. But sometimes you can slip and fall, and discover that what you’d previously assumed to be the bottom of the well is a false bottom, and that you can fall even lower. Grad school revealed a false bottom for me. I thought I’d gotten better, but after I came to grad school, the irreconcilable gap between my desire to be a good student and my inability to do so made my unhealthy thoughts that much more overwhelming and debilitating. I’d hit a new low, and am still trying to crawl my way up.

I haven’t told many people about being depressed, not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m afraid that people will treat me differently. This is a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. When I’m not in an especially bad funk, I can turn my self-deprecation into humor, and in making fun of it, make myself feel better about it. I can be fun and sociable. But I kept it mostly to myself, because I didn’t want to deal with the stigma, the damaging stereotypes that people still have of what depression means. I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to tell people that I couldn’t just change my mindset and get better. I was afraid of being handled like a delicate object, of people telling me I should seek help, drop out of school, and so on (especially because variations of all of these things have been said to me before, on occasions when I was feeling particularly vulnerable). Worse yet, I didn’t want to be dismissed as “crazy” – I didn’t want to be more socially isolated than I already felt. But finally, I had to confess – I had to get the words out, even if they end up doing me more harm than good. It isn’t my job to demystify depression to anybody, but I wanted to be honest. I wanted people to understand that, even if my depressive thoughts may overwhelm me without warning, I can make decisions for myself. Even if I may not always succeed at it, I am an adult.

I’m not confident that I’ll get better. But I’m not convinced that leaving grad school would be the right thing to do, either. I think it would be too simplistic to identify grad school as the “cause” of my depression, even if it exacerbated many of my worst symptoms. But what’s to say doing something else would make me “happy”? I’m not ready to give up on grad school just yet. I’m struggling to rekindle my former love of what I study, because there was a time when I was a curious and inquisitive burgeoning literary scholar, and I miss that.

I have new challenges to look forward to next year, and of course, more time to think about if this is what I really want to do. For now, though, I think I’ll stay where I am, because even if it’s not always fun and not always rewarding, coming to terms with my depression in grad school has nonetheless been a productive learning experience. And so, in spite of all the difficult things I’ve been grappling with over the past year, I’d like to keep pursuing this, as though it were an adventure.