My first contact with SIE, the private summer school for whom I’ll be teaching in Nanjing, was an unsolicited email I received in October, 2011 from one of its directors. In her brief note, Vivian introduced the company, proposed that I teach for them, invited me to send my c.v. if I wished to apply, and promised a decision within 2 days of SIE’s receipt of my c.v.

People who are not professors may not be aware of how many strange emails professors receive. As a Philosophy professor, in particular, I get all manner of emails from people from all walks of life who’ve been quietly working away at an ambitious (and seriously strange) new philosophical system for decades and now want to unveil it to the world. And sometimes a whole bunch of us professor-types receive the very same weird, unsolicited email at the same time. It is not unheard-of for faculty water cooler conversations to take the form “Did you get an email from someone who thinks that the hydrogen atom is the key to understanding geopolitics?”

Well, this clearly wasn’t one of *those* emails. Nonetheless, I hadn’t received an email like this one before, and I thought there was a good chance that it was part of a scam, and that other profs I know might have received a similar scammy email.

So, I referred the question to the hive mind. I logged onto Facebook and posted the following status: “Did anyone else receive an email about teaching in China? Is this one of those Nigerian scams?”

Oh, wait. Some background might be helpful here. IRL, I spend a lot of time and energy as a progressive rabble-rouser. As such, I am very often the person calling folks out for using language that is sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.

And lately, I’ve been trying really hard to expunge ableist idioms from my speech and writing. I’ve become increasingly aware that when we call people “idiots”, for instance, or metaphorically characterize ignorance as “blindness”, we might be causing harm to disabled people — people with intellectual disabilities, say, or blind people. As I’ve wrestled with this problem more or less publicly, some acquaintances have argued on various grounds that these sorts of idioms are not, in fact, ableist. On the other hand, I am very aware that some of my disabled acquaintances find the language insensitive. Here’s my take on things: If there’s any reason to think that expressing my idea in a particular way might cause members of a marginalized group pain or embarrassment, and if there’s another perfectly good way to express the same idea that would not occasion this harm, then I should just use the second (non-harmful) word or words. I think that this is a useful principle in general, but it was my wrestling with ableist language that helped me get clear on it.

So, I was ashamed and broken-hearted when a former student of mine, who is Facebook friends with me, sent me a message taking me to task for associating Nigerians with email scams. This (Nigerian) former student told me that she was disappointed that I would casually reproduce stereotypes about Nigerians in this way. And she was right. All that I meant was “email scam.” It was entirely unnecessary for me to pejore Nigerians in order to convey my meaning. I admitted my error on Facebook and emailed the former student separately to apologize to her. Sadly, she didn’t reply. But, I was really glad that she had pointed my error out to me. I expect to make lots of errors going forward, but I don’t think I’ll make that one again.

So, that’s one way to be an entitled North American jerk.

Here’s another:

Once I sorted out that the SIE email wasn’t part of a scam, I decided to contact some former SIE faculty members to see whether they would recommend the program. I contacted two people — a woman who had been teaching for SIE from the start and had many positive things to say about the program, and a man from a posh northeastern U.S. college who had taught for SIE just once. Let’s call him Dr. Posh.

What I didn’t know when I contacted Dr. Posh was that he was in the middle of a big battle with SIE. As I say, he had taught there once before, and (as he later told me) he quite enjoyed it. But he was pretty sure he could get them to give him a big raise. When they contacted him to see if he would renew his contract for another year, he asked them for a 50% pay increase. Yeah, that’s right. 50%. I don’t want to go into detail, but it’s perhaps worth noting that SIE’s expenses/compensation package is very generous. Oh, and did I mention that Dr. Posh is a tenured, mid-career prof at an impressive American college? But, whatever. Some people have expensive hobbies, I guess. Anyway, Dr. Posh seems to have pretty seriously violated Chinese etiquette because SIE just shut down the relationship with him right away. They just said, pithily but politely, that they would not be renewing his contract. …whereupon Dr. Posh started desperately trying to get the lucrative summer gig back — bit by bit haggling himself down in one email after another. No dice. SIE was no longer interested in him.

Anyway, this all happened just before I emailed Dr. Posh. He saw my email as a mechanism to embarrass/punish SIE. So, he replied to me with a very candid account of everything that had gone down, along with a copy of the whole tortured email thread between him and SIE. And, he cc’d every SIE bigwig on his email to me. You rejected me? Well, I’m going to embarrass you in front of your new recruit.

So, then, predictably enough, I guess, there was a fairly protracted, awkward back-and-forth between Dr. Posh and various SIE folks, with me cc’d on everything. Ack.

And, let’s be clear. Dr. Posh was a huge dick! He was smarmy and patronizing to his correspondents, and unhesitatingly willing to use me — a complete stranger to him — as a hapless pawn in his little game. And SIE was unfailingly polite. There was email after email like this and then it tailed off. Whereupon Dr. Posh sent one last blast to SIE — well, specifically to Vivian, the director I’d been dealing with. “You have a lot to learn about how to treat Western professors,” he wrote. “We are not workers. You cannot treat us that way.”

I was so embarrassed to be copied on a message like this. My dad operated a jackhammer; my grandfather was a security guard; my grandmother was a housekeeper. I come from a long line of workers, and I am indeed a worker. And I am a worker who is already painfully conscious of that fact that in my six weeks in China I’ll get paid more than many Chinese are able to earn in several years.

So, there you have it. Two ways in which one can be an entitled North American jerk.  Not exactly the pedagogy, I promised to write about in this blog, but still — two lessons of a sort, with a common moral: Don’t. So there.

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