The picture to the left is of a former student and advisee of mine, Kyle Ference (author of the Refudiating Through Life blog). During his time at Rhodes, Kyle was in many ways the very ideal of a liberal arts student. He was smart and hardworking, affable and well-liked, committed to socially-conscious extracurricular activities, a scholar, a leader and an athlete. My conversations with Kyle over the years, both inside and outside of class, were always a great pleasure. He had a contagious fascination for all things political, coupled with a real knack for thinking through the abstract principles that govern (or fail to govern) Realpolitik. He was a serious and careful thinker, generously liberal-minded, impeccably measured in his judgments, and his gentle demeanor often masked the real motor beneath it all, namely, a passionate and engaged commitment to social justice that he pursued relentlessly and without concern for attention or accolades. Kyle graduated last year, moving on to what looks to be a very promising future in law and politics, and I was sad to see him go. As all teachers and professors will attest, there are some students who are just a joy to have around. Kyle was one of those students.
Last week, Kyle published an op-ed piece in our weekly alternative newspaper, The Memphis Flyer, entitled "Macho Madness." (It's a short piece, so please click on the link and read it yourself.) In it, he critiqued the hyper-masculinity that characterizes American football culture, inspired by several pro-NFLers' recent Tweetfest about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's decision to take himself out of the NFC playoff game because of a knee injury. To illustrate and redouble his point, Kyle drew upon his own experience as a football player in college, offering anecdotal evidence of the rampant homophobia and misogyny that goes mostly unchecked in football culture. For those of us who are a part of the Rhodes' community, Kyle's anecdotes hung out some previously-unknown dirty laundry. (Among that laundry: his elucidation of the meaning of "school fag," a Rhodes-specific epithet that goes above and beyond your garden-variety homophobia.) The op-ed published in the Flyer was a pared-down version of a longer treatment of the same issue that Kyle had published on his blog here. It was a smart, thoughtful and well-argued piece about an important topic.
But, alas, no good deed goes unpunished.
Just a cursory glance through the comments section below Kyle's piece on the Flyer website shows the burden he has taken upon himself with what should have been a largely unobjectionable piece. Who knows what else he's heard in person since his op-ed was published, but online Kyle was called a "quitter," his sexuality was called into question, and there was even a thinly-veiled threat of ostracism ("You lost a lot of powerful connections with this article, so your writing career better take off or you'll be s*** out of luck"), each leveled in the online equivalent of full-throated Manly Indignation. This week, in the followup issue of the Flyer, the Rhodes College Director of Athletics wrote a Letter to the Editor responding to Kyle's piece, in which he stated that he "read the article with great regret, because the use of abusive or derogatory language is not what we stand for at Rhodes." That letter wasn't an outright denial of Kyle's claims, but neither was it a verification of them. I was just about to begin feeling sorry for my former student when, yesterday, I received an email from Kyle in which he reaffirmed the convictions expressed in his essay and made it clear that, although he had not anticipated the response, he did not at all regret writing it.
Let me go on the record here as singing the praises of Kyle Ference for his insight, his courage, his conviction and his resolve. I remember just a few years ago when he was in my Feminist Philosophy course-- one of only 3 male students in a class of almost 30-- and watching him struggle through many difficult, contentious and often awkward conversations about gender and sexuality. I've had very few students who so easily won the respect of their classmates; Kyle's ability (and willingness) to step outside of himself and seriously think about the world from the point of view of the lesser-advantaged was one of his great virtues. That is a virtue I'm proud to see him continuing to cultivate and act upon, in a world that is far less regulated and forgiving than a college classroom.
Way to man up, Kyle. If only there were more like you.