02 May 2006

Some Thoughts on the End of the School Year

One mistake’s all it takes
And your life has come undone
Walk away cause you’re breaking up the girl
It’s a drag
I know it’s hard
But you’re tearing her apart
Walk away cause you’re breaking up the girl


Tonight was my last class. All that remains of the school year is the final grading. I am teaching in the summertime, so I only have a brief respite, but even summer teaching cannot kill the special joy that accompanies the formal end of the official school year. I am, like most of the professoriate now or in the immediate future, knackered. Especially given that over a cold and non-stop rainy weekend in Cold City, my annual end of term cold/flu/breakdown came early, and I spent Sunday wrapped in Proustian neurasthenics, feverish and uncomfortable. If only it was that picturesque, for I was lacking both the linden tea and the madeleines, but I did have 1 litre Evian bottles, cans of cold Fresca, and NPR purring in the background to my innumerable and delirious cat naps throughout the day and into the evening. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to actually hold class today, but my fever broke this morning and suddenly reenergised (in a puddle of sweat), I managed to actually get it together not only to make it to class but also purchase the requisite “goodies” for the final day: pecan buns, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter-chocolate chunk cookies. A veritable carbo overload!

Because I neglected to order my regalia by the ordering deadline, I am blissfully spared the civic graduation ceremony (I absolutely refuse to go if I can’t tramp it up in the academic version of Capote's Black and White Ball, only much less exclusive and all in black). And while I wish I had a whole three months of glamourous candy-eating and slovenly habits ahead of me, my summer class offers not only extra income, desperately needed to have six weeks of glamourous candy-eating and slovenly habits, but is also in a subject area that I love to teach, and promises to be a small but competent class. I am still waiting on my Persephone moment, "emerging from the depths" in Didion's memorable phrase, but am not sure whether that will happen in the next two weeks or when I join Mr. Gordo later in the summer.

This has been a challenging year for me, in so many ways. One of the things that I have learned is that no matter how one wants to game the system, the system will always (or most always) have the upper hand. All of which is to say that, even recognising the dangers of being over-engaged in service commitments, I was this year over-engaged in service commitments. In fact, I think I have ticked off so many necessary and obligatory boxes under “service” that next year I just have to show up for my classes and I’m covered (if only!).

Boundaries, setting them and enforcing them, remain a weak spot for me. But this is in some ways just a function of junior faculty life. Good citizenship entails working rather hard on that citizenship, not just to save one’s skin at tenure time but also because that is what, on some exalting and dismal level, we do. Professor Panty Hose, an absolute dinosaur I loathed back at Sadistic College, did have her moments, one of which was responding to faculty complaints regarding service, remarking, “Reading reports, writing letters of recommendation and memos, this is what we do.” And to a certain extent, she was right. I have learned, to my peril, that faculty governance is exactly that: the faculty govern themselves (i.e. work) or they are governed. I much prefer the former, although the toll on one’s personal and extrainstitutional life can be costly.

In this regard sometimes I think I am the world’s biggest schmuck. Maybe I’m just not good at gaming the system, maybe the stars and mini-stars and starlettes and casting-couch divas of the profession rely on me and my schmucky ilk to make sure that someone is minding the shop while they traipse around making arcane pronouncements on the colour of the sky at this and that conference. Thankfully, Cold City U is not that kind of place, generally, although I have taught at others where one has to wonder.

This speaks, also on some other level, to my own ambivalence about the university, or rather, the triad of research/service/teaching perfection that junior faculty are meant to demonstrate to be considered worthy. My advisor always intoned placidly that one had to do only two of the three to be successful, but I wonder if even one is possible sometimes. Years ago, The Fierceness and I would have conversation after conversation, where she would detail her desire to use the institution as a parasite to fund her own intellectual projects, and I would nod in agreement, make the appropriate noises, then generally fail to follow through, for as The Fierceness would observe after my being reamed by some sort of university claptrap, “You actually believe in the institution.”

I’m not sure I’m in exactly the same place, but the ambivalence over having a critical take (in this case regarding the university and academic life) yet wanting it to all work out, somehow, seems both honourable and foolish. This ambivalence is only growing, not only for myself but for many in the professoriate as our working conditions change, and the very touchstones of what we were taught to believe was good scholarly practice in the humanities also start to shift for students, professors, and administrators.

To wit, one thing that has caught me off-guard at this end of term is a veritable plague of plagiarism in my lecture classes. On two different assignments in two different classes, I have had five cases of plagiarism, which out of sixty or so students is almost ten percent. And this is not the sophisticated, “unconscious” plagiarism making headlines at dear Old Harvard, captured brilliantly in a series of posts over at University Diaries. No, this is sloppy, unsophisticated, easily Google-able plagiarism, amateurish in its simplicity.

Half of my plagiarists are non-English dominant speakers (a phrase borrowed from La Chicana al borde), and so therefore their sudden expert use of “hegemony,” “paradox,” and “axiomatic” was clearly a red flag, especially when their spoken English in class and previous writing had suggested more rudimentary language skills. “Axiomatic” is a word that should have all professors scrambling for their Google even when used by the best student. The others did it the old-fashioned way, taking text whole cloth from our assigned readings, not even bothering to rearrange the words or misspell things. After my initial annoyance at their not “knowing the rules,” I realised that the rules themselves had become slippery, unclear, fuzzy. These were students who had never had any training in the rules of citation. These were students who were focused on answering the assignment question in the most practical manner possible, which was to actually draw from the assigned texts themselves. On one level, it makes perfect sense to those who are completely unfamiliar with the rules of humanistic scholarship.

One plagiarist in particular had been a thorn in my side all semester. Sitting at the back of the classroom, all macho bravado, he spent class time flirting with whatever hapless woman that would sit next to him, writing them notes and chatting them up (barely sotto voce), all the while obviously not paying any attention to me or my lectures, reflected in his increasingly declining scores on exams and quizzes. At times it got so bad I would have to call the woman sitting next to him to come up front and sit someplace else (Their voices, heavy with embarrassment, “Where?” “Oh, anywhere [but there],” I would answer). While I was annoyed with him, I also wished to spare myself and my class an alpha-male confrontation, so let him be, for the most part, as long as he didn't interfere with other students' learning process. I was skeptical about his essay, but needn’t have been, since his plagiarism was clear. I dutifully marked his paper with the appropriate parenthetical annotations as to where in our assigned chapter he had pulled this or that sentence, made a photocopy, and wrote an extensive cover letter (not my first, I was to discover) indicating that his assignment was awarded the grade of “F” for plagiarism, quoting the relevant policy, and urging him to seek the counsel of the writing centre.

In what was to be my moment of schadenfraudic glory, I gave him his paper back at the final exam, where he had plotted a simplistic scheme to actually use the material from the plagiarised essay in his final through a bait and switch (he came up to turn in his exam, asked for his paper, then claimed he forgot to put something in his exam and returned to his seat, exam and paper in hand). He returned a couple of minutes later (clearly having read the typed cover letter), left his exam and departed without a word. Upon examining his exam, my glee at “catching” this slacker was suddenly deflated by realizing that he was, in fact and to put it colloquially, dumb as a brick. He had spent approximately two hours of an open book examination writing two (as in, 2) hand-written pages in his blue book, not only riddled with spelling errors but also patently not even interested in (or capable of) attempting a cogent answer to a pretty straightforward assignment question. On seeing this, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly depressed. On one hand, I could say this man was clearly not “college material.” What was he even doing here? Wouldn’t he be better at a technical school learning how to solder properly, or repairing engines in a garage, or apprenticing for a trade? Not all people are cut out for a humanities education after all, although our society increasingly tells us that we are. But what really shocked and affected me was the depth of the distance between our visions of what had been occurring in our classroom for fifteen weeks. This was someone who didn’t know the rules, period. Plagiarism was just the icing on the horrendous cake of misplacement, confusion, and necessity.

I have always thought that students plagiarise because they fundamentally confuse the work of the academy and scholarship, focusing on the purported desire to create “new” and “unique” work, a task before which they feel impotent. One of the things I tell them (and will be doing so increasingly, since it is clear I shall have to support a plagiarism unit in my classes from now on) is that scholarship is a conversation between what has been produced and oneself (be that a student, professor, public intellectual, or whomever). Knowledge is not sui generis, but is rather like a cake, layer upon delicious layer, building towards the final creation. However, in the case of my own plagiarists this semester, such a speech would have been wasted on them. They are not interested in knowledge and the humanities and scholarship, they just want to pass and get their degree (any degree) and get on with real life, whatever horrific and plastic vision that may be only guessed at. Classes and books and professors like me and you are just standing in their way, obstacles to be overcome.

While on the surface my plebian plagiarists may have little in common with the sophisticated girls on the banks of the Charles, they speak towards a common sense of entitlement, as UD has so expertly captured in her posts regarding the Kaavya Viswanathan controversy (Posted 4/27/2006):

“UD’s been following plagiarists for a long time, and many of them have been raised by amoral, ambitious parents who believe in nothing, who believe that everything is corrupt, and who want all social and financial goodies for themselves and their families.

Life, they believe, is brutal winner-take-all warfare. They pride themselves on their ability always to figure out an angle whereby each corrupt game of life can be won


What’s striking about many of the plagiarists UD has followed is that they don’t have to break rules to do well in life, but they appear to derive gratification, along with a confirmation of their Hobbesian view of life, from continually breaking them and winning. These are the ‘thesdanians in UD’s world who insist on building their mcmansions bigger than the already-generous rules allow - not because they care about the extra space, but because it’s important to them to show their neighbors their rule-breaking, contemptuous superiority.

Plagiarists, in short, tend to be self-destructive game-players who harbor real venom against civil society. Blair Hornstine and Ms. V. are their unfortunate children.”

The primary difference here being the wide and deep gulf between Harvard Yard and Cold City U, but still, UD is onto something in her contempt for Viswanathan’s pallid attempts at justification. If the upper classes can game the system with glee, as they do, and still remain respectable, what then is to stop all classes from attempting to participate in such a charade?

Well, for one, the fact that rules for the upper class differ significantly from the rules for the rest of us, something anyone with half a brain could tell you. But the real question is what do we, as a society, believe in anymore? The breakdown of rules as represented by Viswanathan finds its modest echo in the sloppy seconds of my own working class students. I would wholeheartedly agree with UD on her observation that aspects of our leadership class have real venom against civil society, but the more important critical observation, at least in terms of my students this semester, is the reference to Hobbes. For unlike Viswanathan and her ilk, given everything for nothing and still wanting more, my students generally have nothing, work horrible jobs, and are attempting to raise themselves up the economic ladder. Yet, they have inculcated Hobbes as much as the Ivyrati, just with fewer options to game the system. To wit, none of my plagiarists had a drama scene when receiving their anal-retentive note, they just read it, nodded, and left without a scene. Try that one with a pampered student at an Ivy or private liberal arts college. The good children of the leadership class know not of shame, and it increasingly shows.

One of our readings in my class this semester was Howard G. Schneiderman’s "The Protestant Establishment: Its History, Its Legacy—Its Future?” on the importance of a leadership class for the stability of democracy. The chapter spoke at length not only of the limitations of the WASP leadership class (its ethnocentrism and racism, its corruption and insularity), but its guiding role in the development of American democracy in a manner that was hard to dismiss out of hand. Schneiderman writes,

“A deceptive myth in liberal democracies like America is that civil liberties and freedom of expression are valued by most members of society, and most certainly by those at the bottom and middle of the social structure. But as Samuel Stouffer amply demonstrated in his classic study Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (1955), and as others have found since, this is not the case. Such freedoms are always most highly valued and protected by the elite few who are better educated and who believe in the liberal democratic tradition, and the last bulwark may well be, as Baltzell (1964b, p. 293) has suggested,

‘[…] a unified Establishment from within which the leaders of at least two parties are chosen, who, in turn, compete for the people’s votes of confidence, from differing points of view and differing standards of judgement, yet both assuming the absolute necessity of using fair means in accusing their legitimate opponents of fallibility rather than treason’” (149).

I’ve thought a lot about this piece, both as I teach it and as I reflect on the Viswanathan controversy. In particular, Baltzell’s quote cited by Schneiderman should be ringing lots of bells regarding our current political moment, a point I was sure to bring up in class. Schneiderman goes on in his article to trace out the collapse of the WASP establishment in the sixties, in the general revolt against authority, but indicates that the reformation of new, perhaps different, centres of leadership will be crucial in maintaining our democratic tradition, however imperfect it may be. And as an underpaid employee of a state institution charged with teaching the students of the working class, we have felt the change in relation to the question of public education, the public good, most significantly. Here is UD’s cited venom contra civil society writ large, in the defunding and privatisation of civic institutions, not only education but also public health (bird flu, anyone?), governing institutions (Our Gilded Age Congress), and media infrastructure (the woes of PBS and the Rise of Fox being two of the most immediate examples).

The professoriate, I would argue, composes one of Schneiderman’s alternate nodes of civic leadership, yet internal doubts as well as external pressures and forces threaten us. It’s one thing to flunk Master or Miss Prissy Pants at Yale for buying a paper online, it’s another to flunk my class thorn, who clearly has a relatively dim future, at least as a student. For the former, a temporary if annoying setback, for the latter, perhaps something greater (and then again perhaps not, for rapaciousness seems to be a general social tendancy nowadays, the tone set of course "by the better classes"). Many leftist academics hold enough of a critique of social and economic power that we can shy away from openly enforcing paradigms of behaviour and/or get all wobbly around some of these questions, because we feel uncomfortable with dimensions of socio-economic power present in "rules" (I could say, briefly, so does the Right as regards themselves, they just believe in rules for everyone else) but also because we are largely intellectual products of the same historical period of doubt that brought about the end of the WASP leadership class. I might hasten to add this is also because most of us are highly conscious, through a combination of personal experience and intellectual training, of the differential nature of "rules" in our society, and seek, rightly in my mind, to at least begin a critique of some of those paradigms of thought, such as meritocracy, which work to obscure the immense differentials at work in things like education.

But in terms of something like plagiarism's delight, what choice do we have? We can only continue to serve as obstacles, not to our students’ success, but to the easy and cheap way of garnering that success, and the avaricious, grasping, and predatory social model it represents. We can attempt to fill the vacuum of leadership our society is suffering through, a vacuum perhaps with no end, not in the name of punition, but in the name of leadership, and in fighting for the humanistic tradition. So, on some level, yes, I do continue to believe in the institution, and its value to our societies. At moments like returning my plagiarist’s paper, however, I also feel a little like an anachronism, a school marm old maid insisting on the rules while the big, bad, corrupt world continues to turn. This is reinforced by the privileged student’s smirk, the implication that we professors mean nothing, are not players, are unimportant, because largely morals and ethics have become unimportant in our society.

As much as I would like to say this isn’t true, that is not what I feel at moments like this. I can only imagine what the faculty at Harvard must feel, confronted with the shining yet empty and terrifying faces of ambition, voracious and with just the edge of the fangs showing, that make Viswanathan look angelic. "Oh. My. God. Becky!" Yuck! While I may lament missing out on the salary and perquisites of teaching at an elite (or in the case of Sadistic College, semi-pseudo elite) institution, at least now I don't have to put up with all the shit involved in working with that student demographic, the constant diaper-changing and pelt-stroking and genius reassurance. That, in its own way, is a small but blessed relief. My challenge now is to invest my modest and self-effacing working class students in intellectualism, which is mostly convincing them to begin to think of themselves as intellectuals in general, as opposed to "not being very smart," which has been said to me this semester more than once by my students, many of whom, aside from technical skills, are as talented as any other student I have taught before.

In any event, I shall not have to confront this challenge or any other for that matter again for at least four weeks, and for that, and the promise of summer, I am eternally grateful. Let the world collapse under the weight of its sin and sloth, I’m on holiday!


GayProf said...

Hail, Amazon Sister! I shall be joining you as well in the Summer School assignment. God, how I hate teaching summer school. You have to see the same students every day. EVERY DAY! We must compare battle scars as we venture through June.

In terms of plagiarism, it’s a tricky issue. Some of my confrontations with plagiarists have really broken my heart. They either literally didn’t know that they had plagiarized or they had become so overwhelmed by the entire university experience that they felt little other option. Yet, I don’t have too much sympathy for thorn-in-your-side student. He simply didn’t offer you the same respect that you want to reward to him. In my own mind, I make a strong divide between students who sincerely work hard, even if their previous education failed to grant them basic reading and writing skills, and the lazy “I just want a degree – any degree” students. Perhaps it is my own fallacy, but motivation is key to me. I am simply not in business for the latter.

Anonymous said...

Oso Raro--

I can't quite articulate--yet--why it's relevant to your post, but if you haven't already done so, check out "The Real Housewives of Orange County" on Bravo.

Oso Raro said...

Great Hera, Sister Gay Prof! I too don't have much sympathy for Mr. Thorn in My Side. He himself was more a paradigm than an individual case. There's not knowing the rules and giving a shit, and not knowing the rules and not giving a shit. Mr. Thorn (or should we call him Morrissey? LOL) falls clearly into the latter category, and he will earn what he deserves. Oso has a bleeding heart, but is also a terror when it comes to the grade sheet. But sensitive types would identify his clear lack of intelligence in the classroom as a call for help, which I partially believe in, but I also know that students craft pedagogical relationships with their professors based on a number of extra-intellectual factors. Maybe he thought he could learn nothing from a poofter. It will have to be a question for the ages, as he never approached me for help and now he is on a one-way ticket to reform school. But your essential point is correct: reach out and ask for help, and most professors will respond. Have a bad attitude? Brace yourself for Hurricane Oso!

Anonymous said...

I am uncomfortable with your decision to move the female student(s) away from Thorn and that you name these women as "hapless." My sense is that by not "standing up to" Thorn his alpha status and/or ego is likely to grow and perpetuate the problem, thus also creating a more attractive trap for these "hapless women." Also, it seems unfair to me to move the female students and make them objects of your power as well as objects of display for the class, potentially feeling shamed. Very similar to me being told to move away from a white classmate for his racial slurs toward me, his action not being addressed - boys will be boys and racists will be racists.

On a less critical note, I am wondering if you have read Jean Anyon's essay "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work"? (1980, 'Journal of Education') In it, she discusses the lessons students are taught in school, by class, about how to succeed. Thus, working-class students are taught to follow rules; middle-class students are taught to give and be able to find correct answers; affluent professional students are taught to be creative; and the executive elite are taught, or by nature of their power made able, to manipulate and control systems to their advantage. Reading about some of the attitudes of your students, I wonder if students understand that there is implied meaning by their acting contrary to expecations of classroom decorum.

oso said...

Before writing any sort of critical response, I feel obligated to say that yours has become one of my absolute favorite weblogs to read, but that since its inception I had never once felt inspired to comment. Or perhaps better put, to engage.

Though I obviously can't speak with any certainty, a gut feeling tells me that I would feel the same way as a student in one of your classes. Your discursive synthesis of complex theories, their application to current events, the name-dropping of intellectuals and multi-syllabic German words to lend either support or enigma to your arguments; it all would leave me feeling both naively impressed and dejectedly incapable.

This is how I felt all throughout college. I went to a university that focused entirely on the research aspect of what you call the "triad of ... perfection." Classes and undergraduate students were merely a necessary interruption in order to fund the research, the quest for nobel prizes, for media coverage, and the dinners in the faculty club. Because of where I chose to drink my coffee on campus, I was privy to the daily sniveling about student apathy. Or lack of critical reasoning. Or plagiarism.

And then I would sit in on their classes where they not only reinforced, but assured that each and every one of those characteristics persisted. Fairly straightforward ideas were cloaked with difficult to pronounce last names and ivory tower jargon that became keywords to get checked off by graders on exams.

I will admit that I was the greatest of plagiarizers in college. I recycled - nearly word for word - everything that my professors told me. Because, despite their idolization of critical thinking, it turned out that they only wanted to reread their own cleverly established theories and poetic catch-phrases.

Just once I wanted a professor to say to me, 'you know what, I bet you there is something that you know and that I don't know - please teach me.' Or I wanted a professor confident and honest enough to ask me (sincerely) "was I more real as the precocious but provincial chubby Chicano from northeast LA wearing "fake" Vans from Payless and terry-cloth tennis shorts? Or am I more real as the sophisticated professor (still gordo) who uses big words and shops at Crate and Barrel in pressed shirts, wearing Brooks Brothers boxer shorts under his slacks?"

Had a single one of my professors made a single one of my classes more humanized and less abstract, I would have actually engaged. If they introduced me to the ideas (not the surnames) in a vernacular that I understood at that time, I would have engaged. I would have thought critically. Instead, curiosity only kicked in once I escaped the condescension.

Oso Raro said...

Dear Anon,

I agree with you that my actions in the classroom were an imperfect response to a challenging situation. One aspect of my methodology was to limit the potential damage Thorn could have in the classroom, by not making him a focus of my public annoyance, leading to tension and disruption. On one level, he seemed to want that engagement, which I denied him by refusing to directly address his behaviour, by basically ignoring him. My approach is generally to choose my battles in the classroom, also keeping in mind that non-white, non-str8 non-male professors are highly vulnerable on other levels, personal as well as professional, and must approach this type of student cautiously. I wasn't terribly keen on opening myself up to rhetorical or literal homophobic violence, nor zeroing in on Thorn as a "problem." Does that mean I was scared of him? Not necessarily, although open confrontation is not my forté, but rather it *does* mean that the work involved in this particular instance to directly discipline him wasn't an attractive or useful option for me. To directly challenge him, at least this time (and luckily, again this time, my hand wasn't forced), was not one of those battles for me. Instead, like many of us, I tried, relatively successfully, to "manage the damage." By relatively successful, I mean we got through the course without tense confrontations or openly pitched battles, everyone who wanted to could learn, and those who didn't could also, if they choose to. Perhaps a "lowest common denominator" type of argument, but one that prevents a difficult endeavour (teaching) from becoming even more difficult. Sometimes just getting through a class feels like a victory, and this past semester, with this class in particular, I felt that way, with Thorn being just a minor aspect of that feeling, I would say. This of course is not to say I don't take these things seriously, for I do, but it is to reveal, I suppose, the extent to which professors are also human, and not simply exemplars of pedagogical or political thinking, and the complicated interplay of those two roles (the human, the exemplar).

The descriptive "hapless" speaks to the complicated situation of the classroom, part of which could not be completely encompassed in the entry. Thorn was fairly isolated by most students by the simple fact that they choose not to sit next to him, he was at the back of a traditional seating-forward class, and therefore out of the scope of view of most people. A handful of women (3), one in particular, would always sit next to him (always women, btw, the men, even those sitting at the back of the class, would never sit next to him, ever), even with other seats available and even when I had spoken, privately, with this one woman in question who was always next to him, who I also later found out from her peers had a less-than-perfect attitude towards the class, about the potential effects of this on her learning process. So, in this sense I was thinking "hapless" (as in, why are you making the choices you are making, in terms of seating, when indeed you, the student, have a choice?), but also perhaps slacker attracts slacker, or maybe she liked the attention, there clearly seemed some sort of gendered element involved. In any event, I was in the end uncurious as to her reasoning, I just wanted them to shut up, which they managed to do after a look or two, most of the time.

I thought, when composing the entry, about attitudinal displays of compliance or refusal vis-a-vis the professor in the classroom as related to role and meaning in the classroom (with Thorn, for instance, but also with the refusal to engage), something I have written about in my academic "real life." However, I am unfamiliar with your reference, and it sounds fascinating, so thanks. :-)

Oso Raro said...

¡Bienvenidos al foro, Oso!

I too have been admiring your blog (con El Abogado y El Moreno) from afar, reading and enjoying it. Thanks for the kudos, and thanks for finally making a comment here. Your comment itself is challenging, and has a number of compelling elements that I would like to begin a tentative addressing of, although no doubt incomplete, and ideally the commencement of a conversation, not the conclusion. I think your critique of academic processes of knowledge, as well as your experience in college, goes to the heart of some of the major structural difficulties confronting teaching as a practice. It also, interesting, obliquely refers (in my mind) to anonymous's Anyon citation, and the attitudes which students are trained to approach teaching and the classroom.

Let me start a response by saying that the persona that is reflected on the blog is not necessarily analagous to my teaching persona, although there is significant overlap. I write here for other "intellectuals," which is a broad based defintion of that term and in my mind includes professors, teachers, cultural producers, professionals in business, government, and science, artists, writers, students, really anybody who finds the subject matter and topicality interesting or compelling. In other words, interested fellow travellers. The voice I project here is one of my many, polyvocal personae that come and go depending on time, day, location, and milieu. It is true as those other voices are true, but is hardly exclusive. It is one my students would definitely recognise, for what that is worth, although its intentions are different.

That said, I am highly conscious of the ways in which students "hear" certain things, and can become remote, or intimidated, or be silenced, not out of aggression, but from a place of exhaustion or impotence. Students can be, sometimes, easily intimidated into silence, even as I try to identify with their experiences from the other side of the academic looking-glass. Some of the pedagogical methodologies for breaking down this distance between professor and student are useful, if used carefully. By carefully I mean to avoid a solipsistic slide into narcissistic "me-isms," but rather challenging students to make the necessary connections between the personal and the academic that enables them to "see" these networks of meaning, and the relevance to their own lives as thinkers.

Students are trained in various voices in the classroom, and feel, perhaps unconsciously, that they have certain "rights" of voice determined by race, gender, sexuality, class, and institutional level. In other words, students are empowered on different levels. I try to live my personal and professional life following Forster's dictum, "Only Connect," and attempt, in both my scholarship, my teaching, and this blog, to do exactly that, on different levels and in different voices and personae. I have become, through my teaching at different institutions as well as in my personal experience, adept at simultaenous translation, at attempting to communicate complicated ideas in accessible formats, not only for students but for other academics. It is in some ways akin to translation, which itself is an underappreciated, complex and nuanced form of speaking and thinking. The challenge of getting students to see themselves in what they study is difficult, uneven, and only partially successful, most of time. Most younger university instructors I know work at it constantly, and talk about the successes and failures with each other, in an attempt to perfect and sharpen their methodology.

The end of my first year here at Cold City U. has become an opportunity for me to assess myself and my relative success and failure at achieving what I see are acceptable and pragmatic goals for the classroom. I would give myself a B-, overall. The greatest challenge as I see it, is how to connect students to the ideas in a smart but accessible manner. Each school and each classroom is different, so it makes a universal template difficult, but I have learned a great deal in my first year about the particularities of the student constituency here at Cold City U., and what potentially will spark a greater involvement in the classroom discourse, including the "Connect" part, between myself and my students, my material and their consciousness, their intellectual life and my role in that formation. Part of the problem is that my students this year don't consider themselves thinkers, so trying to get them to see that they are indeed thinkers is important to me. Whether that is through an invocation of their own personal experiences vis-a-vis our course materials (intellectual journals), group projects and assessments (that let students work together and combine their ideas in response to a series of question), or group work within a classroom session that allows students to share their understanding (or lack thereof), one must keep trying to broach the gap between professor (and ideas, consdiered off limits by many students) and the student, in my mind. To give them an investment in what we are doing in the classroom. The most terrible teaching experiences I have had revolved around those classes where that didn't happen.

Your anecdote regarding your professors' constant complaining and then unreflective classroom methodology is unfortunately widespread in the profession, IMHO. Partly this is because most professors are given little practical training in teaching itself, partly it is because pedagogical thinking and theory is not taken seriously as "real" academic work in the university, and partly that these attitudes reflect the power structures of the institution itself, which is medieval in nature and dependent on kings, lords, and serfs, in other words, each has its place in the structure, and to broach these layers, to attempt to connect them in any way other than hierarchy is tantamount to "original sin" for many academics, even enlightened or sensitive or new ones. Many professors think of education in the tabula rasa model, so therefore, your astute observation of parroting or mimicking professors' knowledge as a paragon of the successful methodology of learning holds a lot of weight, and speaks to Hoggart's notion of the "scholarship boy," someone without real intellectual drive but who is quite good at mirroring, at representing intellectualism for those with a strict notion of what that means, in the end a purely representational notion, but one nonetheless with quite a lot of power.

The structures of how we teach tend to reinforce some of these ideas as well, in the concepts of "good writing," "scholarship," citation, formatting, etc. Some of this is unescapable, but one can work towards giving students the opportunity to recognize the formal nature of what we consider intellectual ability (vocabulary, for instance), and the performative nature of intellectualism in education and our society (How, for instance, do we know someone is "smart"? Their spoken and written speech, their degrees, their self-presentation, all of which are not only learned but in fact reproduced from a template this is simplistic and one-dimensional, and loaded with class, race, and gendered parameters).

Humanising the classroom is but one aspect of this struggle. Humanising intelligence, and potential, and intellectualism, would be other elements of the struggle within and without the classroom itself. Another is the allowance of emotion into learning, into pedagogy. I am reninded of Megan Boler's "Feeling Power: Emotions and Education" which offers a compelling argument for the emotional engagement students have and bring with them to the classroom, and how to begin an approach to including and encompassing that knowedge within our teaching (and research) strategies. Emotions of course are generally verboten in the milieu of teaching, but reflect an important aspect of the humanising mission you speak of in your commentary.

Thusly, I guess *I* am curious as to how your own process of intellectualism became informed subsequent to university, subsequent to the formalism that signals to ourselves and our society that we are, indeed, now, smart. I think one of the things that I have been trying to work out in the "Dreaming Spires" posts (and one of the things that has made that series of post really hard to write), is the interaction between our social selves, our classroom selves, and the place of connection between ourselves as bodies in space and time, with histories and particularities and interests and issues, and the blank texts many of us received in traditional or canonical textual approaches to education. Again, this is something I think many people have been interested in thinking through and wrestling with for at least thirty years, although as I have implied here and in various posts, how that knowledge influences the actual atmosphere of univerity teaching or is (literally) left at the classroom door is problematic.

Bueno, at least, a lot to think about :-)

Best, Oso

oso said...

Tocayo, your thoughtful receptiveness is impressive, welcoming, and disarming. You've obviously spent a good deal of time thinking about how to most effectively teach, inspire, and engage your students. Which is why I can't help but voice my empathy for the disregarded Alpha-Male Plagiarizer. My perspective of the situation is almost entirely through a survival-of-the-fittest lens.

Here is a young man thrown into an environment (the college classroom), not because it interests him, but because he has always been told (by his parents, elders, media) that a college degree is paramount to attaining power and freedom in the 21st century. I disagree however with your claim that he might be better off "at a technical school learning how to solder properly." Such an assertion speaks of the social sciences as if they churn out products (publications, theories, awards) rather than being a process (dialogue, debate, conversation, inspiration). Not only that, but if he chose to drop out, it would be a clear admission - in our relatively new, knowledge-centric society - that he is inferior and impotent.

In short, he feels as out of place and inadequate as you must have as a pudgy, bookish 12-year-old in Southern California.

College is that awkward meeting place of the survival-of-the-fittest high school popularity contest and the survival-of-the-smartest popularity contest that yields the "intellectual class." Of course, both are ultimately about power and sex. Hence the eroticization of the intellectual. I'm thinking of the archetypical, beret-wearing, 70-year-old philosopher trailed by his sex-crazed young, female followers.

You ask me about my own post-college "process of intellectualism," but if there has been any path at all, it's been in reaction against the very notion of "intellectualism." I find the term to be arbitrary, divisive, and exclusionary. As if only select individuals employ their intellect, their faculty of reasoning and understanding. In practice, it's been my experience that "intellectualism" really refers to a self-congratulatory caste with an inaccessible vocabulary and a shared bibliography that only the wealthy and well-financed have the time to read.

I believe that the "intellectual" was created as a response to the powerlessness that geeks felt in a pre-knowledge-economy, dog-eat-dog world. By inventing a mystique, an image, and an exclusivity which must be earned, they could finally gain power, fame, and followrs.

But the questions that self-described intellectuals ultimately ponder are the same ones that we all stay awake scratching our chins at, even your "macho bravado." Is there a god? Are we anything more than skin and bones? What is our purpose? Why do certain thoughts come to us while others do not? Is killing necessarily bad or is everything relative to everything else?

The simplistic way I asked those long-standing "philosophical inquiries" was probably distasteful for some readers. And that's just it. "Intellectuals" have capitalized on their monopoly of how these questions are framed. And with that monopoly they have built institutions (universities, publishing houses, journals) that ensure positions of power, sex appeal, fame, and wealth. So, if I have any mission or path in terms of knowledge, it's not membership to the intellectual class; but rather, it is to discredit its exclusivity and unnecessary complexity. In this long-winded (I apoligize) comment, I could have dropped allusions to Darwin, Jung, Herbert Spencer, Fukuyama, Hegel, and countless other celebrity thinkers. I could have used "nexus" instead of "meeting place" and "materialism" instead of "skin and bones," but the result would only be that fewer people understand what I am saying (even if those who did understand might feel a sense of elite camaraderie).

I know my thoughts are fairly anti-establishment (even when intellectuals themselves are usually considered anti-establishment), but I hope they don't come off as hostile. I have only the greatest respect for what you're doing on here.