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March 9th, 2006

look into my eyes

Something I've been thinking about lately is the matter of incidental eye contact.

Right now, I teach at a historically black college in the South. When I started at St. Augustine's last semester, I was slightly trepidacious about teaching to an all-black (or nearly so) class of students. Not because of any racial fears or biases on my part, but because I wondered if they could accept me as their teacher even though I'm white. My mother has taught journalism at the same school for the last five or six years and never ran into that problem, but I was the new guy. My division head Dr. Ogburn assured me that the students at the college were pretty accepting of their teachers, whatever race they might belong to.

And this turned out to be wonderfully correct. I felt as if I had my students' respect as their teacher (well, from most of them anyway), and the fact that I was a different race from them never seemed to be an issue. They would occasionally make cultural references I wasn't familiar with, but they were all too happy to clue me in. This semester has been the same type of experience.

I think it helps that I'm closer in age to them than most of their other professors. At 30, I certainly seem to be the youngest English faculty member, though not by much. I also do not dress in a suit-and-tie or turtleneck-and-blazer, because those looks just don't suit me (though I do get occasional urges to run out and buy tweed). I'm more laid-back in my approach and hope that they can come to me if they're having problems in class.

All of this, I think, is a response to various professors I've had both as an undergraduate and graduate student, the type who was the officious lecturer, who valued his or her status of hierarchical power, who was unapproachable, who was unwilling to work with me. The type of teacher that divided the status in the classroom into the "front" (power) and the "middle and back" (subjects). They were there to dispense their wisdom, and if you didn't get it, well, maybe you should just drop the class.

Not to say that my classes are democratic. Like Dr. Ogburn says, I run a benign dictatorship. I still set the assignments, give the tests, determine what they will learn, and lecture. And I'm of the firm opinion that if you don't like the way I run my classes, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, including the option to drop (though I try to work with students before it gets to that point). But I also believe that the teacher-student relationship is a two-way street, and that I can definitely learn from them as well. We've gotten into some spirited discussions involving the entire class that all but offest those days of glassy-eyed nonresponsiveness.

Which is a very long and rambling segue back to my main point, that of incidental eye contact.

Wherever I'm walking on or around campus, whether it's getting to class, or having lunch in the student union, or heading back to my car, I'll say "good morning" or "good afternoon" probably a dozen times a day. Whether it's a student or professor, if I'm walking down a sidewalk and am approached by someone walking toward me, they almost always meet my eyes and say hello. This happens with people I know as well as those I don't know. That common courtesy of a "good morning" on the way to class is sometimes enough to pick me up in the morning.

And then I'll come to work at the Center for Transportation and the Environment, where the employees are almost all white, and not a single person will look me in the eye as I pass them in the hallway, and almost go out of their way to avoid my gaze. The people in my department will say a hurried "hi" then continue on their way. This is actually the culture of courtesy that I grew up in (which made it a bit of a surprise when almost everyone on campus would greet me last semester), and I've been wondering why that is. Why is it actually outside the norm anymore to greet someone with a smile and a "good morning"?

This goes beyond just issues of courtesy to something akin to cultural turtle-hiding. Not to generalize, but the what the hell is up with white people? :) Why do we ignore strangers on the street so that we can hurry off to our destinations in peace? Are we afraid that getting stuck in a conversation will make us late for wherever we're getting to? Are we all just turtles hiding in our shells?

I'm naturally an introvert, so it's difficult for me to be more outgoing (though I'm fairly good at faking it), but still, it makes me feel as if I'm missing out on something when I hurry down the street, eyes straight ahead, avoiding the gaze of my fellow pedestrians. When I visited Greece about ten years ago, I couldn't go a city block without getting into a conversation with a stranger. I've heard the same happens in Egypt, and I'm sure many other places. In the South, we're naturally more talkative anyway, in that slow langourous "where y'getting off to so fast" kind of mentality, but still, I don't see a lot of community communication myself (which I am totally guilty of). And this makes me kind of sad.

I don't really know where I was going with this, but it's something I've been thinking about lately. I am getting better about it myself, greeting as many strangers as I can (as long as I don't appear creepy). Who knows, maybe my "good morning" will help someone else get a better start to their day than otherwise. Maybe not. But it couldn't hurt to try.

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