Somebody once said that cruelty has everything to do with abstraction. They probably weren’t talking about the endlessly simmering debates on college learning and college teaching, but they might as well have.
Here’s a piece by Mark Bauerlein in the Times that is attracting a ton of criticism, which is sensible, because it’s bad. Bauerlein seems to be one of these dwindling number of teachers who thinks he’s done his job when students are standing on their desks quoting Whitman’s worst poem. That’s dumb. You aren’t their rebbe, you’re their teacher, and a narrative that ends with you routinely transforming lives is one that’s all about you and not about them. Of course we all want those rare moments of inspiration, but they’re rare for a reason, and they can neither be required nor systemized. So Bauerlein’s piece deserves criticism… but not the kind of criticism it’s getting. Take this piece by Matt Reed, AKA Dean Dad, just as one example among many. “Every semester, a new crop of strangers come to town. And every semester, we set a new group of heroes off on their respective quests. The heroes of the story are the students.”
So here’s a few questions I have for Reed. A week or so ago I was pedaling my bike around campus and made the mistake of going around the fraternity loop on Slayter Hill. I was, predictably, serenaded by calls of “fag” from a porchful of drunken students. Were they heroes in that moment? Or how about the student of a friend of mine who referred to an Asian student as a “cat eater”? Or how about the many students out there who could work harder but don’t, who skip class and put in minimal effort, then demand an A when all is said and done? A lot of heroism going on there? I’m sure Reed would say, well, of course not, those students aren’t heroes. But that gives the game away: why bother with the pretense of calling students heroes at all if you drop that label when pushed? In fact I would say that declining to call such students heroes demonstrates more respect, because it implies the precondition of adult respect, which is adult judgement. And you’ll note that there is a zero-sum quality to this discussion. If I’m compelled to see that student as a hero, what might my praise mean of a single mother who attends my class while holding down a job, does all of her work without complaint, and doesn’t grade grub me when all is said and done? Am to see her as just another hero on par with the frat dude who tells me (as several have done) that he thinks he is entitled to do no work and get an A because he pays my salary? That sounds pretty far from respect, to me.
There’s this regular dynamic that plays out again and again with younger graduate students. They come to teach for the first time, stars in their eyes. They wax rhapsodic about the privileges of teaching. They write grandiose Facebook statuses about how it’s all clicking and how their students are the most amazing, incredible people in the history of amazing, incredible people. And then, inevitably, the comedown. Often this coincides with the widely-discussed second semester slump from freshmen. The instructors can’t get the same level of engagement. The students don’t do their work. They won’t talk about the reading. They don’t seem as motivated or as inspired as that last group. Often, this comes with the realization that in the contemporary university, the undergrads have a lot more power than the grad students and adjuncts who teach the courses for pauper’s wages. And this leads to panic on the part of these young instructors: what am I doing wrong? How did I lose them? The dominant narrative in college writing pedagogy these days is of the heroic student, and that couples with the neoliberal service model of higher education in a way that compels these instructors to see anything less than total buy-in from students as a personal flaw. When these younger instructors come to me, I point them in the direction of pedagogical literature I think will be useful to them and give them advice about how to change their own classroom practice. But I also gently ask them: are you sure that student you just can’t reach wants to be reached? Are you sure he’s not some arrogant child of privilege? Are you sure she’s not just lazy and playing on your inexperience and insecurity? Asking those questions isn’t an insult to students. It’s a way to save them from abstraction. It’s a matter of restoring their individual and flawed humanity.
Speaking personally, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a great number of smart, motivated students who did good work, cared to try something like their best, and demonstrated and demanded respect of everyone in the class. It’s my privilege to teach them. I’ve also had a small but consistent number of aggressive, entitled, sexist jerks in my classes who talk down to other students (until I stop them), alternate between a total lack of engagement and dominating the discussion (until I stop them), and do not deserve the status of hero by even the most watered-down definition. Ultimately it’s my privilege to teach them too. But those groups are not the same, a fact that is lost on those who are attached to the heroic vision of students.
The heroic narrative of students is , on final analysis, just as insulting towards students as the heroic narrative of teaching. Both reduce human beings to symbols that have more to do with the person doing the reducing than anything else. The heroic narrative of students drains individuality and responsibility from specific students, a condition which robs them of the opportunity to receive meaningful, genuine praise. What does praise mean if it is ladled out so broadly as to apply to the tens of millions of people who hold the designation “college student”? And are you sure that this stance isn’t just another way to play hero yourself? After all, there’s a lot of hero narrative in the brave essayist defending his or her students against the insults of a tenured bigwig in the New York Times….
In the end, I suspect both those who propagate that heroic narrative of teachers and the heroic narrative of students share the same fear: the fear of the mundane. Grand philosophical statements about the nature of teaching help us to stave off our discomfort with thinking of teaching as a professional practice much like any other. But the mundane is not a condition to be feared or avoided. There are thousands of accredited colleges in this country and some 20 million college students. The day to day interaction between teacher and student can’t be defined through appeals to political idealism or romantic notions of the sublime. Instead, we can facilitate an environment that fosters mutual respect between all parties which does not depend on a romanticized vision of either. In this capitalist world of ours, a significant portion of our students will always take a transactional approach to learning. The system is lamentable; the way they operate within it, sensible. Like Bauerlein, we can hope for more from them. Like Reed, we can demonstrate understanding for why they navigate our classes the way they do. The mundane is good enough. Respect all of your students; love the ones worth loving. Leave heroism to the movies.