The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Campuses: Northern versus Southern college cultures

I begin this week, readers, with a confession: Nothing in this blog entry is scientific at all.  If you read this and say to yourselves, “I went to college down South, and none of this is true about where I went to school,” or “Northern universities are not at all what she says they are,” I take no offense — these words are based on my observations and experiences.

That said, I have taught students in the North and Students in the South, and this is what I have seen.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

Here is a photo of students attending the first college where I taught after I received my Masters’ degree, Notice the ethnic diversity of the student body, a truly enriching experience for everyone in the room, the vague weariness — most of these students had full-time jobs while they pursued their bachelors’ degrees.  Notice, too, that they do not grin the way Americans do in other parts of the country but look rather serious.  Indeed, they asked me deep questions as I taught.  If I called right now on the girl in the head scarf raising her hand, I guarantee you her question would impress you, blow your mind, and make you think a new thought.  I loved these students. They generally came to class hungry for debate.  I would throw a polemical discussion topic in the center of the room, and it would go off like a grenade.  For the next half hour, we would have the kind of conversation that makes college worth the price of tuition.  What was important in life?  What did good government do? What mattered more?  Which one betrayed the other?  Write an essay of no less than five paragraphs that argues your point of view.  My goodness, how New Yorkers know how to argue!  It’s our sport.  While the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, the rest of the New Yorkers not in pinstripes scream at the ump, tell him why he got that last call wrong.  That is who we are. The debates were lively and passionate.  The written work of the students varied in quality.  The ideas were without exception dynamic. Though traditionally-aged, my students had survived things, emigrating from war zones, rescuing siblings from crack-addled parents, maybe just working really hard by age sixteen in a tough city.  Sometimes, they yelled at me in class.  I yelled back.  This wasn’t insubordination.  In New York, we call this conversation.

These young women call their professors

These young women call their professors “ma’am” and “sir.”

Then of course, I went South.  Here is a photo of the sort of students I am likely to teach down South.Notice the blonder hair, the conformity of pastels and Nike shorts and shoes.  They all look about five years younger (and less experienced) than the Yankees above, but they are not younger, only more sheltered.  Notice the smilier smiles.  These students all call me “ma’am.” I have to tell the students in the South that debate is not only allowed in the class, it is required, I have to put it in the syllabus.  And then we have to practice it. This happens because it is considered incredibly rude to contradict one’s elders in the South, even if your Aunt Lucille says that her chihuahua’s rump spot looks like the face of Elvis.  You’re not allowed to ridicule your granddaddy’s view that the Mexicans are about to invade with a huge army if you’re Southern.  In the North, by contrast, one of the most loving family gesture is to turn to your brother, slap him on the back of the head as hard as you can, and shout, “What are you, stupid?”  That is loving, Brooklyn style.  In the South, even if your brother is unimaginably stupid, you can’t ask the question, and frankly, if it’s that bad, you already know what he is.  He is stupid.  But this tradition of Southern respect makes my students unwilling to contradict one another and debate.  It makes class time polite but more dull as well.

As I believe in classrooms where debate takes place that the professor has a requirement to briefly disclose his or her biases on any topic, I often tell students in my classroom that I am a committed Christian.  In the North, the room of students usually slightly tenses.  Arms get folded across chests.  They wonder if  I will judge them for not being Christians (I won’t) or because they live a wild and reckless life (I don’t).  When I say the same words in the South, I hear an audible sigh of relief.  In all these students’ non-contradicting family’s gatherings, there is an uncle who pulls aside college student one by one who are there, and he puts his arm around each of them.

“Don’t let them steal your Jesus, boy!” He says.

I am not the professor who will steal, or even attempt to shoplift their Jesus, as I have mine chained to the luxury coat rack with an alarm so nobody removes Him.  So they are relieved.  I don’t want them to be Godless.  I just want them to be sort of rude, by their grandma’s standards at least.

I feel a little schizophrenic wherever I am teaching now.  When I am North, I notice the bumptiousness of my students and wonder why they are so nervy.  When I am South, I notice the passivity of my students and wonder why they don’t take more risks. The truth is, there is wisdom in being both courteous and bold, and I suppose that’s why we have a whole country full of college students, all of whom are delightful in their own ways.  On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, my students are optimistic, compassionate, and offer fresh perspectives when urged to do so.  That’s why I love teaching all of them.

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December 22, 2011

Yes, Bubba, there is a Santa Claus

There is the perfectly tasteful Dixie Christmas (see above)....

There is Christmas, and then there’s Dixie Christmas.  There are entire towns whose displays are utterly tasteful.  I think particularly of Oxford, Mississippi, where the decorations are classic, and the carefully appointed historic homes are utterly elegant — lots of red velvet ribbons, evergreen branches and tasteful white lights.  Vicksburg has a lovely tradition, where they place candles along a number of roads in bags (think Martha Stewart craft project, not a fraternity practical joke), and people drive down the streets without their lights on at five miles an hour, following the path of these bags of light.  That is far better than any Far Rockaway household’s dancing santa doll.  However, there is the other Dixie Christmas, the one that is fraught with reasons that Jesus cannot be held responsible for the season.

Understand that there were plenty of tacky iterations of Dominic the Christmas Donkey in New York City, but there is a kind of a boundless high-end rococo kitsch that is entirely unironic and completely unconscious expressions of tastelessness that cost money in the South.

These are best typified (look for reruns) by HGTV’s astonishing special Donna Decorates Dallas.  If the title of this show reminds us of that 1970s porn flick Debbie Does Dallas, so much the better, as it really is a triple penetration of bad taste over at Donna’s high-end Dallas clients’ houses.

I suppose I am a taste class bigot.  I have no problem understanding the person who has limited choices because of limited income and decorates as best they can with the Dollar Store tchotchkes they can afford, but when the rich, and the smug, and the altogether Republican, display a phenomenal lack of good judgment in design choices when they are willing to spend enough money on their expensive abominations to feed a dozen hungry children in the Ozarks for a year, and these are the same people who will probably vote for candidates who will cut the school lunch programs in their area, I am morally as well as aesthetically offended.

In a season where we should be remembering the homeless — no room at the inn for the Holy Family — when people turn to Donna, she offers the gilding of the lily in so many iterations.  Why not hang animal print ornaments on your two-story Christmas tree?  I am not kidding.  Why not have a  nativity scene where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are decked out as if they were headed for Mardi Gras?

...and then there's Dixie Christmas with animal print ornaments, for which this woman will charge you an arm and a leg.

Donna and her two daughters look like ex-Cowboy Cheerleaders.  Each is blonde and pretty in that particularly expensive Texas way that is lovely without being elegant.  One of the daughters had trouble identifying the figures in the nativity scene — and Donna said they should go back to church.  I agree.  Donna and her daughters decorate a peacock colored Christmas tree.  Donna seems to decorate everything in peacock colors, including herself. See her photo here.  The tree reminds one of nothing more than Priscilla Presley‘s bad taste in decorating Graceland — there is a peacock room there, and the tree is as bad as the one in Memphis, with nothing to do with the lovely preening bird but a plastic imitation.

People pay her a lot of money at her Dallas Boutique called That’s Haute to do this kind of thing for them, and they think they have bought something that makes them look refined.  Admittedly she hasn’t used false advertising in  the name of the boutique.  What is haute, after all?  Is it haute couture or haute vulgarite?  She doesn’t tell us, and people who have clearly never learned that bedazzling doesn’t make a person look wealthier, only more desperate, can’t tell.  Donna is convincingly former homecoming queenly in her sales pitch, so I guess the real housewives of Dallas don’t know that they are getting a sequin tiara instead of a diadem for an imprimatur in taste.

During the rest of the year, this is just part of the conspicuous consumption of the filthy rich — the Enron executives who cashed in before the fallout, the Halliburton shareholders who have profited from the blood of G.I.s — you know, the American dream, Republican Texan style.  It seems crueler, however, when this same esthetic and  philosophy is applied at Christmas to the veneration of the man whose first words of ministry indicated that he had come to bring good news to the poor.  Instead of the soup kitchen, this money went toward things to be torn down in a month, and they don’t even confer the nobility that the buyers hoped they would to onlookers.  They remind me of the homeless, the hungry, and the underserved in our country and how utterly contemptible the attitudes of Donna Moss and her clients are to these honest people.

There is an old Latin maxim:  “De gustibus, non est disputandum” which means, “There is no disputing matters of taste.”  However, in Christmas decorations, it occurs to me one might say, “De gustibus, non est habenandum.”  The translation roughly would be, “There is no having good taste,” at least around here.  I want to embroider this sentiment in peacock colors on throw pillows and put these words on the sofas of all of  Donna’s clients.  I’ll tell them that the phrase comes from the Bible, and they won’t question this or look it up.

Again, this is not everyone’s Christmas taste down South.  Some people are tasteful and remember the poor.  I find that these two qualities tend to go together, too.  Tacky is as tacky does, it seems, down here.

Let’s remember the poor this season.  Let’s be grateful for things that cannot be made with a glue gun — friendships, relationships.  Peace on Earth, even in the gun-toting South.  Goodwill toward men, even toward women.  God rest ye, preferably in a tastefully appointed room, but God rest ye, wherever you are.

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