Intimacy in the Ivory Tower

In a philosophy class I took my first year, we
read Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” as part of a unit on morality and
responsibility. Thomson argues for the morality of abortion, comparing the case of the mother to several hypothetical scenarios, including that of a person trapped in a small house with a
child growing so fast that it crushes the person to death. The arguments, I thought, were logically
sound but emotionally detached from a much more complex reality.

While deciding among ourselves the extent to which abortion is analogous to murder, the question of emergency contraception came
up. One of the male students suggested that perhaps when considered in this
particular philosophical framework, emergency contraception was morally
analogous to having an abortion, which was perhaps equivalent to murder.

He had no idea that I had taken Plan B just a few
weeks before. His comment deeply alienated me. The
conversation quickly moved on, but I never forgot that moment. Instead of being an
agent in an intellectual discussion, I’d become an object of moral judgment. I felt
uncomfortable speaking up, as if my comments suddenly had no place in the
classroom. The intellectual and the personal, my identity as a student and my identity as a woman, were put starkly at odds with each other.

A central tenet of feminist thought is “the
personal is political,” which expresses the idea that the subjective, emotional sides
of our lives are no less important than the objective, and should be embraced
and explored, not ignored.

I like to think that the personal is intellectual, as well.
After I became a women’s studies major, Sunday brunch gossip wasn’t just gossip
anymore, and heart-to-hearts with close friends opened up to include a large
body of scholarship. The line between being a good student and a good friend
blurs when what you learn in the classroom is also a tool for supporting your
friends through first times, assaults, and other thought-provoking or troubling
experiences. On weeknights, I read Audre Lorde and Michel Foucault’s
discussions on sex and power, and on weekends, I got to test those theories out.
Even the highest point of the ivory tower started to feel real and down to

But “the personal is political” is not at all limited to gender and women’s studies. Even in the hard sciences, the subjective, the
emotional, and the personal can become central. Organic chemistry is about more than pure
chemistry—it is about what that knowledge will ultimately mean for our families
and in our communities, knowledge with applications that could produce a life-saving
drug for a loved one.

Because the personal is intellectual, it seems imperative
that we integrate compassion into our learning and our classrooms. But how
can we create more space for compassion? If there is not space in the
classroom, where does compassionate learning happen? As educators, peers, and
friends, how can we be intellectually compassionate and
compassionately intellectual?

I asked one friend, a pure math major, what he thinks of
compassion as part of his academic and intellectual life at Pomona College. He said
that while the math problems that he works on are themselves abstract and
theoretical, the process of problem-solving itself allows him to relate to
others in a way that fosters compassion and understanding. Working
on a problem set with another person allows you to engage with them on a
level that is more “raw,” to see a different side of someone he or she would not share in another context. Unusual ways of communicating can produce unique
forms of intimacy, so even pure math can be an exercise in compassion.

The fields of study at the 5Cs represent diverse
ways of cultivating intellectual intimacy with particular sets of ideas,
students, and professors. Maybe the difference between analyzing Derrida,
solving a math problem, playing a sport, and holding someone close is not as
big as we think. The richness of human experience creates unlimited space for
intimacy to be physical, intellectual, emotional, and everywhere in between. I
hope that for all of us, college encourages us to reach out to one another with
compassion and experience a broad range of these

If I had spoken up about my experience that day in
philosophy class, would that have changed the course of the discussion? What
would the response of the other students and the professor have been? There
were three women in that classroom, and one in three women in the United States will have had an abortion by age 45. None of the 17 or so men in the class will ever
face that choice. Maybe that reality should have been more central in the discussion.
Maybe we could have all used a reminder that a classroom does not exist in
isolation, and that our intellectual selves and our personal selves are separate in name only. 

Jenna Archer PO ’15 is double-majoring in French and gender & women’s studies. She was a summer intern for the Feminist Majority Foundation.

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