Our winter term is coming to a slow curtain. We are close enough to feel the edges of the giddy break, a pause in the endless commuting, the drone of National Public Radio, the incredible amount of money currently spent on gasoline, not to mention the actual techne of teaching: the grading, the preparation, the performance, the ethos of “the show must go on” even or perhaps especially when one feels more like crawling back into bed chilled by neurasthenic anxiety, or never leaving the bed at all, duvet securely tucked over one’s head.
In moments like this, I feel Didionesque, reaching for the cigarette and the tranquiliser, trapped in a ruined manse on Franklin Avenue watching for anonymous panel trucks and imagining the worst. I have taken to closing the oaken door of my borrowed office upon arriving on campus and napping with my feet up on a chair, a book nestling my chest, the muffled sounds of students and secretaries floating through the walls as the radiator clanks and hisses and the computer emits a soft ping whenever a new email arrives.
Last fall, my introductory class was like swimming the English Channel, three times a week. Between fractious groups of students who regularly brought their extracurricular tensions into the classroom and the more personal dramas unfolding behind other oaken doors and on the interstate between hither and thither, I was exhausted. It took all my energy to play my game face, to arrive and be animated, constantly haunted by feeling like a lion tamer whose luck has run out. Again and again and again.
My class this semester, however, has demonstrated once again for me the infinitely local and immediate politics of classroom ecology. Whereas fall was in many ways sheer torture, the teaching equivalent of waterboarding, the current class is surprisingly friendly. Smaller, more cozy, and without the native informants who can, on occasion, wreak havoc on one’s lesson plans, not to mention one’s last good nerve.
It is a known risk in the art of teaching race, sexuality, and gender studies that students often bring their lived and vivid subject positions into the classroom. Many instructors of these interdisciplines make quite a lot of hay over how such subjectivity adds to the classroom, contributes to peer learning, and bridges the gulf between intellectual study and real life. All claims, I might add, that also look quite good on a teaching statement.
However, and to be frank, sometimes such subjectivities can be annoying, insofar as there will be students (and there always are, for the most part) who have what I like to think of as an inappropriate investment in the transparency of experience. These are students who arrive with a firm belief in their known subject position, and thereafter stick to it. Since the point of most classrooms is transformation, in a minor or major key but transformation nonetheless, such stasis can prove damaging, especially when it becomes imbued within real life politicised identity categories.
Now, not every student can become a butterfly, emerging from the chrysalis of preexisting knowledges all shiny and new and renovated, like Lindsay Lohan after her latest stint at rehab. This we understand, following the Chinese proverb “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.” But sometimes students want another door, or refuse to see the door, or don’t believe in the principle of doors, or rather, and more depressingly, think they don’t need a door at all: they’re fine just where they are, on a BarcaLounger with a litre of Pepsi, a tube of Pringles, a flat screen television, and multiple remotes.
They are, of course, sadly mistaken, if only because identity, like all intellectual knowledges, is always fluid, always changing, and always (already) mutable. This doesn’t mean identity is not felt or indeed lived, obviously. What it is to say is that we all can afford to learn something new. And, moreover, it is to say that the occasional student who digs in his or her heels and refuses to learn something new is not valourising their identity (as they may understand it), but rather selfishly refusing to think, which may be a forgivable crime in the world beyond my classroom, but is decidedly a mortal sin chez moi, because it speaks to a remarkable lack of curiosity.
This term, such pitched battles of will have been deliciously absent, because the exact matching identity category to the subject we are studying is also absent in the student population. In this case, one runs the opposite risk of an anthropological study, especially when at the commencement of the class one of my students inquired as to whether we would have guest speakers. I have not designed the course to include guest speakers, for two principle reasons: firstly, the course readings were comprehensive and inclusive (sometimes overly so), and because the classroom is primarily an intellectual space for me, a reliance on written course materials is sufficient to communicate important components of the study.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I did not want to turn the classroom into the Hottentot Venus Show. People speak from their experience, and sometimes that act of speaking is informative and interesting and compelling, but the idea of bringing in The Other to inform the non-Others strikes me as, to put it somewhat colloquially, icky, in an old-fashioned Yamomani kind of way. And, already serving as a kind of living, breathing Other for most of my students, as a racialised gay man who is resistant to facile ocular readings, I know the pratfalls of being a real life avatar of consciousness. One is always disappointed in not getting “the real thing.” But what, I would ask, is that real thing, and why do we seem to want it so badly?
Where the rubber meets the road in this little disquisition is often over the question of role modeling. Concerned parties declare, “Our students need role models!” whilst ringing their hands and mopping their brows. And I am a role model, just not usually for students who are exactly like me. My old department chair at Sadistic College criticised my performance as assistant professor because I was not mentoring the “appropriate” students. Sure, the Latino students were not flocking to my door, but there was usually always a line of students outside my office, typically women: lesbians and black women and white women.
Seemingly, these students were my constituency. Something in my teaching persona appealed to them, and inspired them. And why not? The idea that we need, like simple narcissists, an exact replication of ourselves in mentoring and teaching and intellectual development is a crude understanding of identification, to put it mildly. This is not to say that institutions no longer need to work harder at recruiting and retaining faculty of color and LGBT faculty, because they do. But it is to point out that most of the time identity and identification are not neatly seamless, which is a standpoint some students lack when they come into my classroom expecting to learn nothing (new).