Encomium of Melissa Click
We know due process was sacrificed for political convenience, but what about Click’s character?
At the turn of the century, Alanis Morissette’s charting 1996 single, "Ironic" was a mainstay on top 40 radio, yet the pop star was derided at the time because the lyrics — “it’s like rain on your wedding day” — were deemed un-ironic by critics. Of course, as is often the case with critics, Morissette’s lyrics described what literary scholars dub “situational irony,” an incongruity between expectations and actual events. A similar incongruity and ignorance confronts us when reckoning with media coverage of my friend and colleague Melissa Click, the recently fired Mizzou professor accused of behaving badly while attempting to protect student activists who rightly continue to insist that black lives matter. A video of Melissa resisting an unannounced student photojournalist went “viral” and was framed as a violation of the first amendment; how soon we forget the right of “the people peaceably to assemble.”
With the fuller context of Melissa’s actions now public, as a professor I doubt I would have reacted differently in the same situation: most of us drawn to the profession of teaching are very protective of our students, not simply as teachers, but as fellow human beings. However disagreeable Melissa’s actions that day may seem, there is no evidence to disprove her expressed motives: she wanted to support and protect students who felt threatened and overwhelmed by the events of November 9, 2015. She has subsequently apologized for her misjudgment. The suggestion that her behavior was unethical — or worse, that Melissa is deserving of rape and death threats— reflects the systemic character of racism: when a contradiction between a longstanding, institutional disenfranchisement and an expressed commitment to equality is exposed, “the system” works to make the contradiction go away. The point of the protest was to expose and make public the racial discord at the University of Missouri; a story about a spitfire professor, however, is easier to tell. The focus on Melissa’s person is a misdirection, a kind of magic trick that covers over or elides the more serious and complex issues. Whenever a public issue concerns a larger, systemic problem for which we are all responsible, we have a tendency — especially in the media — to focus on one individual, displacing our own complicity.
Not wanting her plight and mistreatment to detract from the systemic racism that the students sought to spotlight, Melissa remained silent until it was clear her job was at stake. During that respectful silence my friend has been fashioned into a scapegoat for a “culture war” waged against higher education by the Missouri State Assembly and UM System Board of Curators over tensions and political wrangles that have nothing to do with Melissa as a teacher, scholar, or person. For many politicians and pundits, Melissa has become the stereotypical “liberal professor” who brainwashes students into left-leaning ideologies when, ironically, the Melissa I know is far from an ideologue: as a scholar and teacher of communication and critical thought, Melissa’s job — like mine — is to help students think about and voice their concerns thoughtfully. Whereas many politicians and pundits characterize Melissa as impeding free speech, I know she was actually trying to promote and protect such speech for students of color. Ironic, indeed.
The irony deepens when I think about how Melissa and I met. We first became friends as graduate student “fellows” at a “cultural studies and method” workshop in the summer of 2000. Cultural studies — dubbed “communication” and “communication studies” in other countries — is an academic field that developed in response to non-traditional students coming to higher education in the UK during the postwar period (e.g., soldiers). The early educators in cultural studies were teaching critical thinking skills to a class of students who had no exposure to traditional education methods. These teachers decided to focus on objects of popular culture — popular literature, magazines, pop stars, radio, film, television, and so on — to reach these “new” kinds of students. The theory of teaching developed by cultural and communication studies scholars aimed to hone critical thinking about objects of everyday culture: for example, what do representations of gender or race in the mass media tell us about how identity is negotiated in society? The guiding idea behind much of communication and cultural studies is that students more readily come to critical thinking and analysis when the objects of study are not rarified artifacts, but elements of workaday life and “entertainment.”
Melissa and I met in this intensive, three-week study with others about the cultural/communication studies approach to teaching and scholarship; her research at that time was about mass media depictions of domesticity and femininity (e.g., Martha Stewart), and mine, about how mass media reportage about paranormal stuff (the occult, ghosts) reflected class struggles. We bonded over our intellectual interests and commitment to theories of teaching that met students “where they are at.” But we also bonded as friends over our common, human enjoyments (for example, Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill was part of that summer’s soundtrack). Since our friendship was forged over the common purpose of teaching and researching communication and culture that summer, Melissa has become a dear friend and career-long colleague. Over the years we’ve discussed many times the challenges of our approach to teaching, especially the dismissive attitudes of those who do not understand why we take popular culture seriously and use it as a vehicle for teaching critical thought.
Ironically, the focus on Prof. Click’s person — especially in social media — seems to have completely missed her.
I have long admired Melissa’s brilliance, her sharp wit, her laughter, and her compassion for teaching — which is why her characterization in the mass media by people who do not know her is so appalling. If anyone examines Melissa’s service to the university community and her chops as a teacher, it’s clear that she is exemplary. Perhaps the biggest irony, then, is that Melissa and I teach media studies and should not be surprised by the success — and misdirection — of “viral” media. As scholars of popular culture, we constantly intone to students that “reality television” is not really “reality,” and that what we see on screens is, in fact, screened, manipulated, and circulated for immediate provocation and emotional incitation, if not incantation: the spell of the screen is that “seeing is believing,” even though we know that at some level to be suspicious. Wars and presidential campaigns alike are waged on such a screened logic. In our time, however, media consumers are savvy, if not altogether cynical: we all know, for example, that the lives portrayed in Keeping Up with the Kardashians are cultivated and scripted, yet we must suspend our disbelief to enjoy the show. At some level I hope that those who have followed Melissa’s story know that she is a brilliant, funny, and talented human being who only sought to support her students over the course of twelve years at the university. Such common sense, however, is willfully suspended by state legislators and university curators to advance political agendas. We must resist this kind of cynicism because someone’s real life, her career, is at stake. Melissa Click, the person, is not Melissa Click, the reality show.