Working in the Real World

| July 18, 2006 | 4 Replies

It’s been a long week, and it’s only Tuesday.

As my bio indicates, I work at a community college. I teach English and am a writing tutor in our campus learning center, which not only provides help with writing, but with math, science, and foreign languages. We are a multipurpose facility although the individual tutors only work within the areas of their specialization. It is a chaotic place in which to work, not only because of the multiplicity of disciplines represented, but because, while each discipline occupies a specific area of the large room that houses us, there are no walls separating us, and staff are forced to share offices rather than having private spaces to which they can retreat.

Or, at least that is the reason given by some of the staff for the pandemonium. What they say contains a grain of truth, but it is only part of the story, I believe. The real cause of the difficult working conditions, in my opinion, is the lack of respect for boundaries displayed by some of the tutors who behave as though no one else works in the center except themselves. They conduct loud conversations about personal matters wherever and whenever they want, gossip maliciously in front of students, crack jokes and laugh raucously, treat students who come to them for help with something close to contempt, and disrupt the concentration of everyone around them constantly. They seem obdurately oblivious to the needs of those with whom they work, including the students. They simply take what they need and ignore everyone else’s needs.

What intrigues me about this scenario is how our workforce breaks down politically. (I’m not making this up.) We are divided between Republicans and Democrats. I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. Yes, there are no Democrats in the self-centered group (although there are a couple of Republicans in the cooperative group). There are fewer in the self-centered group than in the other group, and yet they dominate. The self-centered group relies on the other group to do most of the work of actually helping students.

And, inevitably, there is political discussion. The members of the self-centered group are vocal and heavy handed with their opinions. They voted for George Bush twice, support his wars, his domestic policies, his religious beliefs. The believe in the manifest destiny of the United States. They are highly offended if someone expresses any opinion that diverges from their own, becoming strident and irrational to drown out their opposition. Even though there are more of us than of them, most in our group simply say nothing, having been effectively intimidated into silence, unwilling to create confrontation. Those of us who refuse to be intimidated maintain an uneasy truce with the bullies, demonstrating both our unwillingness to be cowed or to engage in shouting matches.

What I’m claiming here, although simplistic, is that I work in a microcosm of our larger society. It’s the empire builders versus those of us who believe empires are created by greed, exploitation and xenophobia. It’s the motorists with “Freedom isn’t free” bumperstickers versus those of us who ask in bewilderment “What the hell does that mean?” It’s the bullies versus those who don’t know what they believe and are afraid to challenge the dominant paradigm. It’s a belief in entitlement versus a belief in equity. And it doesn’t work. The bullies are not effective tutors, and their behavior prevents the rest of us from doing our jobs as well as we’d like to. Morale is low, suspicion, resentment and aggression are high.

But I’m told this is the way of the world.

It is, of course, the way of the world we’ve created, but it doesn’t have to be. We could live in a world in which people lived considerately with each other, and in which the young would not have been raised in an egocentric society that has corrupted them to such extent they believe they are unique in their entitlement. If it’s possible for individuals and family groups to operate along these lines, why is it idealistic and unrealistic to suggest it would be possible for the world to do the same?

I wish I knew how to overpower the bullies to bring this about without resorting to their tactics.

I wish I knew how to turn the tide from empire building, from willful ignorance, from self-centeredness, from malignant jingoism to the enlightened self-interest of global awareness. All I seem capable of is preventing myself from succumbing to my rage, and it takes all my energy.

Did I mention it’s been a rough week?

Stay tuned for my rant about liberal Democrats who enable.

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Category: American Culture, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Chris Van Mierlo is a South African of British descent who left the country with her family in 1960 when her father was in danger of being arrested by the white government because of his anti-apartheid activities. She has lived in the St. Louis, Missouri, area since 1969, and previously lived on Cape Cod, in Boston, and in Syracuse, New York. Chris teaches and tutors English at St. Charles Community College. In addition to her English degree, she has degrees in music, which she has also taught. Her home away from home is Montana where she and her husband hope to retire in the not too distant future. Chris is the mother of two sons, one of whom lives in St. Louis and the other in Missoula, Montana. She is the grandmother of two girls, 10 and 16.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jason Rayl says:

    There is a phenomenon in physics having to do with energy absorption and so-called black box curves. Basically, it is where the predictions of classical physics break down and quantum physics takes over, and amounts to a physical demonstration of the principle of diminishing returns. The more energy you put into something, there will come a point where it requires enormously more than the feedback curve would suggest to get a rise in temperature.

    This is an analogous situation. I worked for a man who was not very bright, but was incredibly competitive. He couldn't stand the fact that I knew more than him. He began listening to Rush Limbaugh regularly in order to have something with which to argue. Naturally, I found this…stupefying. But I found after a while that the energy required to refute the inane arguments with which he challenged me far greater than any return I could possibly gain.

    This is the point in psychology where the desire to feel good and be better outweigh any devotion or respect for truth and reason.

    Sadly, it seems that their desire to feel better about themselves is also part of a black box curve, energy going in to fill a void that in all likelihood cannot be filled. But there's nothing new about this. The Crusaders, many of them, likely had the same need.

    I ended up not engaging him. I ended up finding contrary evidence, printing it out, and leaving it on his desk. The pile grew. When he asked what he was supposed to do with it, I said "You can either read it and learn or shove it up your_______ but I'm not going to do your work for you."

    "What do you mean 'my work?'"

    "You spent a lot of years making yourself ignorant. I can't undo that, you'll have to. You better get started or you'll die before you understand anything."

    We stopped debating and I got on with my work in a more peaceful environment. I don't think he ever read all those articles, but I think he did get a sense that he was being shucked by Rush.

    Bullies define the battle. And it's always personal for them. I have, in fact, found liberal bullies, though they're rarer, I admit, and their tactics are different. Right wing bullies (I refuse to call them conservatives–they lack the sophistication for genuine conservativeness) are easier–everything must be simple enough for them to control. When it's not, they rage, they rant, and they ignore reality until it cowers behind non response.

    Black box idiots.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Microcosm indeed! The Democrats/liberals in your setting sit by and let the Republican bullies run their ideological rubbish, even though they have the bullies beaten by number. That same snag has created a Democratic party that looks weak-willed, inconsistent, and without direction. That lack of direction looses them voters and public support. On an individual level, it looses them confidence and arguments.

    I really like Jason's solution to his problem, but of course that can't work in every case. I don't know the solution at all- it takes miraculous oratorical skills to beat pigheaded ideologic with the complex logic necessary. I think I can safely say, though, that the Democrats/enabling liberals have done the worst thing possible in many cases: nothing. They've given up out of desperation, and that only lets the ignorance of the bullies rule and wreak havok.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    As regards Chris’ situation, I wonder if it would help to take a survey of the people who come in for tutoring, and query whether they found the staff helpful. Perhaps if data can be produced showing a marked difference between the performance of the self- vs. student-centered tutors, that would get some attention and maybe lead to behavior change.

    When confronted with people who are both ignorant and stubborn, often the best thing to do (as Jason did) is to let the data (i.e., the *objective* truth) do the talking. This has worked for me before in such business situations. It is very hard for the ignorant to argue against real data.

  4. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    I'm with grumpypilgrim: aren't the tutors supposed to be helping the students? Does anyone ever evaluate their efforts? Or is being a tutor such an awful job that there's no competition for it, and the college is just glad to have some warm bodies occupying the position?

    Actually, if I were a student I'd be complaining since the whole tutorial system is presumably part of what I would be paying for with my tuition.

    But I don't have an answer to the core question. Loud people are sort of like obnoxious smokers who don't realize they are polluting everyone else's air space, in this case with noise rather than smoke.

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