Returning to the drama of the gifted child classroom setting has been, well, refreshing, to say the least. My experience at Doctoral U. over the summer teaching this same course to more traditional students prepped me a bit for the Nestea plunge of the return of the repressed: Pater, Mentor, Symbol, Structure. It is a role that I once relished, back at Sadistic College, but then grew out of at Cold City U. Having mature, self-assured adult students revealed the true dimensions of the problematic of traditional teaching. But, with a gift for gab and an easygoing nature, I thought little of the actual dynamics of returning to the traditional classroom.
It’s not that I have been thrown for a loop. Franchement, I have been teaching too long for that sort of dramatic gesture. Rather, I am rediscovering the internal dynamics of the traditional student and their worlds, especially how they bring the instructive differences from their social spaces into the classroom. Again, I had a preview of this when, over the summer, I had a smart, sexy, articulate student activist in class. I failed to realise, enamoured as I was myself with hir prowess, how this person dominated and effectively silenced the other students in class. My epiphany came at our final social class dinner, when we discussed a recent campus controversy. The student activist pronounced a certain reading of the situation, which caused some cautionary noises from myself, and then, surprisingly, other students.
These were little cautions, not big ones, but nonetheless the student activist seemed upset and left early. After hir departure, the group exploded in alternative readings, contradictions, and political accusations. It was at that moment that I surveyed, in my mind, the strange silent dynamic in class, so powerful I had written off the class mid-way through as being disinterested. I finally saw not disinterest but fear, fear of this student and the implications of discussion. It was an instructive reintroduction to the hypersensitive overlapping of the classroom with the dining hall, the dorm room, and the meeting space.
There is more than just a little of that at Prestigious Lil’ College. Unlike Doctoral U., PLC is small, élite, and self-conscious in a panopticonic way. These students bring intimate histories into the classroom setting. As I have been negotiating the different streams of thought occurring in the classroom, racial and sexual and gendered and intellectual, I began to think of the student catalogue, the system of identification that many of us maintain, even if it is not coherent, to understand the social world of the student within the classroom, a sort of primer in high school cafeteria politics, glossed within the college classroom— the paradigmatic tribes we inhabit. It allows us to teach more easily, and perhaps more problematically, also tends to determine our initial impressions of students, although I don’t know of any professor (or at least those who I respect) who isn’t willing to be surprised out of their system.
My "system" was developed as a younger teacher-apprentice and perfected at Sadistic College, with all its mind trips. I allowed it to get dusty at Cold City U., but now find that a review may prove helpful. Obviously, most of these archetypes are specific to my own training and experience, but modification is the art of classification, so adjust to your own expectational categories. Expand the boundaries of knowledge!
Borrowing a page from Linnaeus, let’s begin the work of classification—
Description: The internal plant, a pair of student eyes and ears that record and report what occurs when you are not around. Habitat: Your office hours Beneficial Effects: Anticipating crises, averting disaster Cautions: Not revealing your hand; deploying their own agenda
The Smart White Girl
Description: Dedicated, interested, involved Habitat: The front row, with reading marked Beneficial Effects: Smart, smart, smart! Relieves the burden of deadly course conversation slowdowns with compelling questions Cautions: Easily disappointed; secretively critical on course evaluations
The Student Activist
Description: Relentlessly hypercritical of society and culture; if skilled, typically smart; if unskilled, relies too much on polemic Habitat: First or second row Beneficial Effects: Can point out the obvious political connotations without implicating you Cautions: Can easily turn on you as an "Enemy of the People"; can be excessive in requests for extensions due to arrests at demonstrations as well as invocations of bell hooks
The Politicised Woman of Color
Description: Beautiful, brainy, opinionated Habitat: Second or third row, off-centre Beneficial Effects: The voice of articulate racial-gendered dissent Cautions: Can become frustrated with level of understanding of peers; can overplay role of representational voice of dissent; occasionally exasperated by Smart White Girls (see above), Showstoppers (see below), and Cautious Women of Color (see below)
The Cautious Woman of Color
Description: Ambitious, critical, calm, collected. Habitat: The corner Beneficial Effects: When she decides to intervene, it is always remarkable Cautions: Easily bored; preoccupied with the LSAT/MCAT/GRE
Description: Gab-ilicious! Liza Minnelli gestures, eyes popping like Diana Ross, they want to be the Star, hands splayed out under the faces like Judy Garland Habitat: Under the key light Beneficial Effects: Will intervene in any silence, even if s/he hasn’t done the reading Cautions: Boredom of the other students, yourself, as they drone on; hard to shut up
The Shy Girl
Description: Quiet, observant Habitat: Fourth row, off-centre, head down, eyes averted Beneficial Effects: Generally good work, their writing is typically highly skilled; their presence boosts your enrollments, pleasing the Dean Cautions: Opaque, hard to read, potentially critical on course evaluations
Description: Regards the class and you as bollocks; doesn’t like the reading, nor the discussion, nor you; Exaggerated self-esteem issues Habitat: Second row, ostentatiously doodling Beneficial Effects: A souvenir of the folly of youth Cautions: Can foment dissension in class and outside of class (see The Spy, above)
Description: Taking the course for Gen Ed requirement; disinterested Habitat: back row, texting under the desk Beneficial Effects: Can sometimes surprise you; comic relief Cautions: Can challenge your authority if irritated; can distract others
The Grade Grubber
Description: Always interested in the grading percentages, sometimes excessive questions on assignments. Habitat: Any seat, your office hours, the Dean’s Office Beneficial Effects: Clarity in grading Cautions: Typically have to grade up to alleviate the threat of a long process of grade challenge
Description: Didn’t get it, doesn’t get it, will never get it Habitat: Front row, looking bewildered; your office hours, before and after class, the writing center Beneficial Effects: If you like a challenge…; points at the pearly gates Cautions: Tends to pull at the heartstrings and be awarded a barely passing grade for effort
This is just scratching the surface of a rich vein of professional knowledge. What are your archetypes? Let a thousand flowers bloom!