“. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Yesterday a student came to my office to talk about her final writing assignment–from last semester! She took an incomplete in December so she could go home to be with her family as they sorted out a trauma that no family should—but very few families don’t—experience. The violence to her family happened the last week of last semester.

I assume all of her professors did what they could to ease the burden that had fallen on her. I knew that giving her time to finish her work was the only legitimate response to her situation. Twenty years ago I would have reacted the same, I am sure.

However, my response was based on a very different premise than it would have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I would have imagined I had the ability (the power?) to help rescue this young woman from the horrible ordeal she and her family were experiencing. However, neither in December nor yesterday did I have any illusion that I could make anything right for her. The only thing in my power to do was to help her understand the writing assignment she needed to finish in order to change her incomplete grade to a letter grade.

And be kind.

And let her know that what she was doing was perfectly acceptable both to the university and to me. And to check once more to be sure that she had followed through with the counseling from the university’s student life center that I had helped her arrange. What we were doing was totally about her and her work. I did not need to tell her anything about my own personal experience of the kind of trauma she had experienced, was still experiencing. I did not need to try to fix anything. All I needed to do was be open and as generous as it is possible for a professor to be.

Her essay is a two-part study of the work of Orlan, the French performance artist. The first part is research—to write a description of Orlan’s work and discuss Orlan’s ultimate “project.”  The second part is to write an argument either pro or con for the proposition that Orlan’s artistic work is “grotesque.” The topic of my seminars in Discovery and Discourse is “writing about the grotesque,” and the students write about short fiction in light of Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” They also write about the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The work on Orlan is the culmination of this thinking about what makes a work of art “grotesque.”

I was prepared to read the last of 60 essays from the semester arguing that “Orlan’s work is/is not grotesque because – – – “ I was dumbfounded to read, “Orlan’s project is to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty – – -“

In nine semesters of using the topic of the “grotesque” for my classes’ writing and researching, I have not read another paper in which the student turned the proposition on its head. The grotesquery has nothing to do with Orlan; rather, society’s almost universal understanding of beauty for women is grotesque.

The student was, in fact, using the academic assignment to work through and talk about the trauma of her family. And doing it brilliantly. Her essay will be one of the two I submit for publication in our department’s annual journal.

. . . the grotesque?

. . . the grotesque?

To have drawn the conclusion I did about my interaction with the student is perhaps self-serving. But my conclusion is this. My willingness to give the student a tiny (one hour!) bit of extra help, simply to be kind, and to help her summon the courage to seek the professional help she needs gave her the freedom to use a purely academic assignment to begin to work through what had happened to her.

I did not talk with her about the importance of what she has written, but I will find a way to discuss it when she comes back for the final review of her essay.

My response as a 69-year-old and what might have been my response as a 49-year-old may not on the surface seem different. But when I was 49, I would have been sure that I was supposed to DO something, that the result was up to me. That, from the goodness of my heart and my concern about the student would come some wonderful result for her.

But today I know that simply being where I am supposed to be, doing what I am trained, paid, and expected to do, and doing that with compassion and concern is enough. Watching the student think through a topic from a new perspective, and knowing she will be OK in spite of her almost impossibly difficult situation is my reward—for doing my job.

2 Responses to “. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

  1. Alison says:

    I still struggle with not trying to fix things for others. Kindness and listening may be our most important gifts.

  2. Pingback: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick) | Me, senescent

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