On Office Hours

I’ve been diving back into my research, and with that expedition into that part of my mind, I have come upon many memories of my time in graduate school. I have some regrets, but not of grad school itself. I don’t regret getting sick (because no matter what they say, depression is not our fault). I don’t regret not trying to enter the faculty career track (I would have failed then, both logistically/physically and mentally). I don’t regret a heart-wrenching and monumental decision I made, one that looks clearly wrong from the outside, but was clearly right from the inside. (“All the alternatives were worse,” she says wryly.)

I regret not learning how to grad school until much too late. The prime example of this in my mind is office hours.

Not only was I a first-generation student, but I was homeschooled through grade school, and by the time I was an undergrad, I was a mother. At no time have I ever been a traditional student, so my models and norms of behavior come from odd places. The only thing I knew about office hours came from that scene in Indiana Jones, where a throng of horny undergrads mob his office door, shouting what are surely vapid questions. He avoids them by jumping out a window.

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (couldn’t find a high quality clip)

It wasn’t until my 2nd or 3rd year of graduate school that I learned what office hours are really for. I had a professor that term who everyone thought was, honestly, kind of a bitch. She was not kind, not helpful, not interesting, and not inspiring. It was probably 2-3 weeks before the end of semester when she emailed me and said that she was surprised and disappointed that I had not visited her to discuss my paper.

Imagine how perplexed I felt upon receiving this. You mean, it’s normal for someone to seek advice, even before they know if they’ve gotten something wrong? It’s acceptable to take up a professor’s time with probably-foolish questions, even when it’s not assigned? It’s encouraged to grapple with ignorance together; I’m not expected to solve everything on my own? Even this woman who seemed dismissive and annoyed by us was asking to help me. I remember it feeling like everything was less hard, the way you feel when your medicine works and you can get up and work without dragging chains along with you.

Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol
After the amazement came embarrassment, and I felt apologetic. She must have felt that I thought I didn’t need her advice, that I was arrogant and dismissive of her expertise. Maybe all my professors had always thought that about me. In reality, it never occurred to me until then to visit a professor for anything more than a clarifying question.

Eventually, she was a member of my dissertation committee and probably the most helpful member on it. I think that she, more than any of the others, understood that I needed a kind of guidance that was different from most of the other graduate students. I think she was able to see that (most of) my missteps were due to nothing but an ignorance of culture and expectation.

Maybe even this regret is not my fault, but it’s hard to break the habit.

In Love with a Dread Wolf

I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition (again) and Trespasser (for the first time) this week. Somehow, every time I play this game, I fall in love with Solas. And I mean matter of factly. I don’t just have my character romance him as the game allows me. I actually feel love in my real self. This time, it was particularly strong, and I’ve been puzzled by it.

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Solas is the kind of villain you want to forgive. In this way, he reminds me of Medea, and perhaps this is partly why he fascinates me so. Medea is a woman I sympathize with and perhaps cheer for as I read. Who among us hasn’t been mistreated by such a man, one who so cavalierly tossed aside the woman who loved him? She is a victim of injustice around her, yet a vocal advocate for herself. We side with her in her battle of words with Jason, and we also thirst for vengeance. But the vengeance she chooses is a vengeance that horrifies us. Like a ghost in the corner of your vision, you can almost understand her choice, and you almost want to. But never quite.

After 110 hours (this time) of playing this game with Solas at my side, I know him well enough to understand his choices and almost justify them, participate in them, in fact. The game is quick to remind me that, actually, destroying the world is bad and our only choice is to fight him. But for me, a female elf, it’s more complicated than that.

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Long ago, before any history humans could remember, elves lived in a world where matter and spirit were intertwined. Wonders we can hardly imagine were everyday life. But what seemed like a utopia had that one flaw common to us all – the heart. The leaders became corrupt. They enslaved their own people, and eventually murdered one of their own because she was kind and caring to the people. But one person stood against those rulers. He created secret havens for escaped slaves, and he taught them how to fight for freedom. In time, he led a slave rebellion, but in order to overthrow the ruling elites, he had to cleave reality from itself, thus creating the world we have now. Earth, the world of matter, and the Fade, the world of spirits.

That Pyrrhic victory for the elves destroyed their world and way of life, but gave them freedom. It was a choice Solas says he made because “all the alternatives were worse.” To him, freedom is worth the loss of everything else. But now, that freedom too is long lost, and once again, elves are slaves to cruel rulers, silenced and sidelined for existing. A desire for freedom and a vengeance against the unjust is natural.  And this time, he doesn’t just want to give them freedom. He wants to restore the world that was to give them the perfect harmony with nature they had so long ago. When it comes time for him to say this world is also worth destroying to achieve that goal, I can almost agree.

Solas stands for the downtrodden. He is the hero of the enslaved, the silenced, the ridiculed, the mistreated. A person like this you may expect to be kind, but he is not kind. Nor is he cruel. Any action may be the right action if it results in a better world. When you bring a problem to the Dread Wolf, you may get an unexpected solution. He is too clever for a mundane response to injustice, too smart to not see around the corners. The world is grey for Solas, and even enduring love cannot shift his commitment to the freedom and happiness of his People at whatever cost.

Sounds noble, right? And he is. He is a loyal friend, someone who despises authority but respects a kind leader. Despite his dissembling, he has integrity, refusing to more than kiss his lover when she didn’t know the truth of who he was. He has regret for mistakes and a fierce devotion to knowledge.

So why is he a villain?

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We think of the destruction of the world as necessarily bad because it inherently requires mass annihilation of life. You can’t simply remove the Veil, changing the very nature of reality, and expect many survivors, even if doing so in the interest of others. His plans only have room for his own People, and everyone else is as worthless as the dust they’re made of. Even his own life is of value as only a sacrifice for the freedom of the elves. It’s all so inequitable, you know. Why should the elves matter more than anyone else?

But I wonder. Has the status quo resulted in any less of a loss of life? Centuries of enslavement, violence, rape, disease, and murder. Residents of Thedas have been content to allow this and in so doing have allowed a mass annihilation to happen, slowly, over time. Have any fewer people been murdered in this slow march of apathy? Have we, in our disregard, shown that we think we matter more than others?

We aren’t uncomfortable with the number or the loss of life itself. It’s the optics we don’t like. It’s easier for us to look past the slow pileup of death. Our own world has poverty and disease, violence and murder in spades. Would we be willing to save them if it meant destroying ourselves if we had the chance? Or would we rather let the lives pass slowly, as through an hourglass, believing that one day change will come, believing we are doing as much as we can. Perhaps beyond optics, it’s simply that this time it isn’t in our favor. We are quick to say that you can’t value one life over another, so you can’t destroy the world for your own people! But we implicitly value one life over another by continuing to be content in a world of injustice. The lives of those we love hang heavier on the scales.

In some ways, perhaps Solas has the right of it. If freedom is truly an ideal above others, then the loss of everything else is of little consequence. For those who have been content to enslave or who have been implicitly complicit in silence, why would we choose their lives over those of others? Why do we think it is worse to destroy the world when we’ve been content to let the elves languish in their ghettos and die as slaves. We have kept the world from them, for no reason but selfishness. Why does it seem like Solas is worse than us for destroying everyone indiscriminately at once when we have done so with discrimination forever?

Perhaps it’s a false choice. I hope we can find a way to give us all a better world. But mostly, I just want to save Solas, because the lives we love seem worth more than others.

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