Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Stop that wretched humming!!!
or, more evidence that Drout does not fit in anywhere...

[Update: In response to comments: I'm not criticizing individuals who nod and hum. It's a perfectly normal part of phatic communication to do so. I am criticizing it in a large meeting context when the speaker probably can't even see you or hear you as an individual. Also, I'm not objecting because of the content of what is being affirmed by the humming (neither the leftism or the Christianity is per se objectionable, though it obviously depends on the specifics). I am objecting to the anti-intellectualism of the practice: humming leads a speaker in one direction and not another without having to articulate an argument. I was part of a fraternal society that had weekly meeting for four years in college: I know how to use cross-talk, murmuring, etc. to railroad a meeting. It's not a good thing in academia, where we should be aspiring to intellectual debate.]

One of the things that has long driven me crazy about Wheaton is what I have labeled "The Leftitst Hum." When someone is speaking--at a meeting, or at lunch, or even in a presentation setting--and that person begins going on about social justice, or race and class, or gender, some subset of the assembled faculty members will begin to hum their assent. Depending upon how extreme the speaker goes, the humming can sometimes break through into sotto voce appreciations and assents. I think this is related to how easily we can allow our colleagues to go on talking smack.

I have complained for years, to anyone who would listen, about "The Leftist Hum." I think it is anti-intellectual and an obvious attempt at steering discourse in certain directions without having to actually argue for a point. I think it's rude to speak, hum, or even nod intensely (God, I hate nodders!) when someone is speaking. Listen attentively, answer with words, argue your case. (I have avoided Wheaton's AAUP meetings for years, even though I pay my dues, and support the work of our AAUP chapter unequivocally, because I don't want to lose respect for my colleagues due to their humming. For me, it is like fingernails on a blackboard).

Well, while at Hillsdale last week I discovered that "The Leftist Hum" has an exact counterpart in the opposite context. I won't call it "The Rightist Hum," however, because it was more specific: It is "The Jesus Hum." Every time one of the speakers brought up Jesus (this conference was about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, so it wasn't out of the blue), the exact, same, maddening hum buzzed up in the audience. I thought my head was going to explode.

When I calmed down, I realized that there might actually be the germ of an explanation in the parallel: Wheaton was originally a religious seminary, and even though it wasn't Quaker, there's a very strong Quaker-feeling tradition about certain things at the school. New faculty have expressed great frustration sometimes at the way people seem to go round and round and round at meetings, not quite arguing, sidling up to a point rather than making it. For someone from New Jersey (me), it was a very difficult adjustment. And I wonder if the hum is part of an early American religious tradition: that would explain a presence at both Wheaton and Hillsdale, which both have long traditions. If the traditional behavior at Wheaton stayed the same but was attached to the new 'religion' (i.e., hot-button social and political issues) but remained attached to Christianity at Hillsdale, that might explain the existence of the behavior at both places.

It does not, however, excuse the damnable humming.

But it does give more evidence that I'm just a malcontent, which you all knew already, anyway.


Frank said...

I know I nod and hum (though not too much of the latter) when others are speaking just to let them know that, indeed, I'm paying attention to them. Just standing there staring at them would be kinda weird, I think.

Natalia said...

This is such a funny post - because it's true. The Leftist Hum is something I seem to encounter a lot, and back when I lived in Virginia, I ran into the Jesus Hum fairly often, too. I don't think it's got to do with the schools in question.

I find them annoying too, even though I am both leftist and Christian (hence really not at all averse to Jesus).

I think what's annoying about the hums is that they work to affirm some larger narrative (for which the triggering comment is only a metonym) that's supposed to be taken for granted.

But if it's something that shouldn't be taken for granted, what's needed is not humming but careful analysis. And if it's something that should be taken for granted, why the &*% are we humming about it instead of just taking it for granted?