A lecture, I can’t quite recall the course title: The Something Something of Power. I was fulfilling a requirement at Hampshire College. Hampshire is a hotbed for creative and political thinking; I was only there for the creative. The course was sought-after, and didn’t look too terribly painful. Michael Klare, the professor, is/was a highly regarded activist, author, and political thinker. The course would explore the dynamics of power, policy making, the manipulation of democratic populations, and the history of civil disobedience in the United States — from the workers unions and the labor clashes of the early twentieth century to the non-violent resistance of the late 60’s.
The class was held in a giant auditorium — even though there weren’t that many of us. I sat way in the back. From the high seats, I looked down, absorbing the material from a distance, participating as necessary, and studying Michael Klare for my outside-of-class Michael-Klare impression — he had a distinct hand-waving mannerism, and overused the word “vis.”
For the final paper, we had to identify a “cause of war.” This, I did. My paper covered the span of what we had studied during the semester, and it was fairly well-structured and polished, and about 5,000 words, well-exceeding the 2,000 word minimum. Klare, however, wouldn’t sign off on the form that said I had fulfilled my requirement (Hampshire is pass/fail) — so I gathered up my final paper and my form and went to his office.
With the peacenik types, Klare was popular, a guru. Students were always staked out at his office door. Tie-dye and Birkenstocks. On the Massachusetts campus, I was the exception; my upbringing had been pretty, uh, chaotic, with art world parents and too much television and the New York Post, and I’d emerged from it all with polished shoes and an aversion to torn blue jeans. Lined up, sitting in the hall with Klare’s acolytes, I listened to their ongoing discussion about sitting somewhere else until the Man came. I was okay with the politics, but I kept to myself about the civil disobedience; I was just too cynical, or maybe too realistic, to scramble my brain with futile objectives.
Finally, my turn. Klare had an “open door” policy; his door didn’t close, not even for meetings.
“What do you want?” he said.
This surprised the other students in the hallway — Klare was habitually congenial — but I had anticipated animosity, and I stepped in and plunked down into the wooden chair opposite his desk.
“I passed this course,” I said. In fact, I knew that by any fair measure, if Hampshire had given grades, I deserved at least an A- in that course. I was a transfer student, a 4.0 at my former university. In high school, I wasn’t a good student at all — and when I left home I taught myself the difference between a good student and a bad student. In college, I was punctual and didn’t miss classes, and I handed in my assignments well before their due dates so I could hand them in a second time (with suggestions and/or revisions in place). The one thing I had done wrong in Klare’s course: sit in the back.
“Your final paper,” he said, “was inadequate.”
Full disclosure: there was another thing I had done wrong. I had argued, in my final paper, that the cause of war was peace, that the psychological and economic conditions of peace gave rise to psychological inclinations and economic incentives to “wage war.” Peace, I explained, led to calcified bureaucratic systems, hegemonic economics, societal and cultural centralization, overpopulation and wage disparity, thus establishing the favorable conditions of societal indifference, economic profiteering, rampant propaganda, xenophobia, and a plentitude of poor young people to recruit. But, notwithstanding its obvious trespass, I had made a point of thoroughly researching and citing my contentions — I’d spent several days at the humongous University of Massachusetts, compiling a footnoted bibliography which doubled that specified by the syllabus — and I told him I had fulfilled, more than fulfilled, the requirements of the assignment.
“Were this college to offer a course in the burlesque,” he said, “I believe it entirely possible that you would marshal praise for your buffoonery. However, you have failed to actualize two fundamental requisites of this course, vis, you have not demonstrated a substantive, active understanding of the subject matter, and you have not delivered a correctly argued academic essay. Vis: your final paper, in which your reasoning is glib, and often fallacious, vis, your thesis is not a thesis at all. A thesis, as you may remember from my handout, is not just a claim, it is a claim + evidence. What you have not provided me is evidence. To pass this course, you would need to provide me evidence in two regards: a) that you understand what a thesis is, vis, a thesis is a claim + evidence; b) that you have absorbed something of the curriculum, which I so labored to advance.”
Klare was a compact man; he was tipped back in his chair, already tensed for some protest he’d be going to later that day. Some protest where he would spring into action, while I would not be attending. Protest can be a privilege unto itself, an allowance for the affluent; on college campuses, there’s always something of a class contribution to the radical politics scene, and maybe I was just too down the middle, too “it’s a good public school” to feel comfortable in the association of what was, at Hampshire, simultaneously very rich, and very blue collar.
Heads were looking in from the hallway, but I did not want to take another required course or rewrite my paper, and I had come prepared, with a plan of action. I slid the form across his desk.
“I’m not leaving this room until you sign it.”
“I am not signing that,” he said.
We sat there, looking at each other. He called for the next student to come in. The student approached the door, figured out what was going on, and hesitated. Other shaggy heads peered in from the periphery of the doorframe. For five minutes, exactly five minutes, he stared at me and I stared back.
“Very good,” he said, and then he signed the form.
Edited by Bretty Rawson.
Featured image courtesy of Rawane Khalil.