I watched Marvel’s latest show Hawkeye consistently identifying with Clint Barton (played by Jeremy Renner). Not because I’m a superhero, but because I’m an aging Gen Xer: exasperated by mundane adult tasks, still faintly in touch with my younger and cooler days, but also weighed down by the burdens of history. And because I’m constantly getting schooled by the college students that I teach—not so unlike how Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop constantly steals the show, teaching Hawkeye a thing or two in every episode. I was all too familiar with the look on his face, whenever Kate would assert herself against his as-if sage statements: Actually, you’re right, Kate.
But wait: Before identifying with Clint, I was already identifying with Kate. It started in the first episode, after the opening credits scene that recounts a formative slice of Kate’s childhood. We are reintroduced to Kate as a college student sneaking around campus at night. It turns out she has accepted a dare: to ring the clock tower bell from across the quad—using her bow and arrow.
As this scene unfolded, I was swept back to my first year of college. Picture a Midwestern idyll. Hillsdale College: a Great Books haven on a hill, in the middle of decaying cornfields. I was a grumpy, out-of-place loner trying (and mostly failing) to make friends. I was an outdoorsy type at a college full of preppy Christians, assorted jocks, and slovenly libertarians. I acted out. One time I parked my beat-up Volkswagen Jetta in the president’s reserved parking spot. I found a paper ticket from the campus police under my windshield wipers; but because I never registered my car for parking on campus, they never could act on it. (Anyway, that president disappeared after a horrific scandal during my senior year.)
Then in mid-winter, in a more elaborate if unnoticed act of defiance, I camped out in a classroom on the third floor of one of the oldest buildings on campus, Old Fine Arts (no elevator, creaky stairs, high ceilings; has since been replaced by a new building called Delp Hall). I slept on the floor of my classroom, on my camping mattress. The next morning, before dawn, I set up a static line on the rusty fire escape balcony of the building, and rappelled down into the snow, some 30 feet below. I schlepped off to my dorm room to stash my gear, proud I’d accomplished . . . something.
Warm feelings of low-key, college-era rebelliousness came back to me as I watched the second scene of Hawkeye, Kate Bishop’s clock tower, er, bell tower, attack travesty. I was there with her, a rogue college student, in the system and bucking it at the same time. But overwhelmingly, during the bulk of the show I found myself in Clint’s worn hipster work boots, being schooled by Kate.
Kate quickly learns that while she is talented and two steps ahead of most of the surrounding characters, she’s also just a pawn in a bigger game. This is a lesson that Clint has learned the hard way: a surviving Avenger, watching his legacy fragment into Broadway entertainment (and further Disney spinoffs, ahem). It’s almost like being part of a university that is trying to adjust, to ‘reinvent’ itself to educate the Kate Bishops of the contemporary moment. Students these days are smart, sensitive, often scarred, and quick to call bullshit. This puts institutions and instructors in a constant defensive, or really, an endlessly accommodating mode: every pedagogical impulse has to be safe-proofed with backdoors and escape hatches. So we see Clint continually amending his absolutes and ultimatums, and re-welcoming the assistance of Kate as the plot thickens. Clint Barton realizes that he, too, is part of something that is less about him than about something bigger—indeed, it’s about the next Hawkeye, an identity that exceeds his identity. Teaching college these days feels more and more like tilting into something new and different, something emergent—and resistance is futile.
Like college these days, “Hawkeye” is an identity past its prime—at least as much as Clint embodies this superhero. He has moved on. Or is ready to move on, trying to move on. Kate, on the other hand, has an identity in formation. Throughout the series there is much hash made over who Kate is going to become, who she really is. But Kate herself is never unsure of this: she just is, and knows it. Kate’s self-confidence and self-clarity is almost alarming—whether facing down the tracksuit gang, Black Widow, Echo, her intense mother Eleanor Bishop, or Kingpin himself—Kate just goes for it and comes out on the other side with scratches and bruises, but unfazed.
And, in time, Clint is unabashedly impressed. His praise for Kate, when it comes, is professional and direct; he is a model mentor, sharing wisdom and ceding authority by turns. As their dynamic develops, they learn from one another, and learn to trust and help one another. Friends? Partners? Teammates? More accurate: they become collaborators. Kate has landed the perfect senior-year internship: academic and practical, at once.
Rewatching the series, I paused during the three-way fight scene on the rooftop at the end of episode 4, with Hawkeye and Kate Bishop fending off the new Black Widow/Yelena (Florence Pugh) while also fending off Maya Lopez/Echo (Alaqua Cox), who are themselves tussling—everyone is confused. It’s a brilliantly choreographed scene. Seeing it again, though, I realized that Kate Bishop is only part of the Gen Z representation that intrigued me in Hawkeye. It was all three of these characters, jostling and changing and figuring things out…these brilliant, emergent, traumatized, and expert women engaged in conflict but also tense, charged dialogue. That chaotic and beautiful fight scene, the Gen Xer reeling in the middle of it all? This is my classroom.
My current students are approaching graduation. I started teaching a lot of these same students back in the fall of 2018—what feels like eons before the pandemic set in. I remember in my freshman English class that fall: we were reading Frankenstein, and one day a student pointed out: “Mary Shelley was fucking 18 when she wrote this!” It wasn’t a claim of disbelief, or even exactly awe. It was more like, We, too, can do anything.
I’ve seen my students survive a pandemic, get through college, and become even more incredible people in the process. I’m writing these same students letters of recommendation now, as they apply for jobs and internships and graduate school. By the wrap-up of Hawkeye’s first season, Clint Barton is well equipped to write a glowing and substantive letter of recommendation for Kate Bishop. He even could serve as a character reference for Echo and the new Black Widow, too.
Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book is Pedagogy of the Depressed (Bloomsbury, 2022).