Sunday, March 27, 2005

Heigh ho, heigh ho

It's fascinating to me that I'm still getting hostile comments about my mock-manifesto. I'm not gonna link to it here, because I am tired of getting nasty comments from people who claim they can know everything there is to know about me and my classroom from one post. And of those, I prefer the ones who are overtly snide to those who attack me because I supposedly lack the very kind of compassion they are supposedly sending me nasty messages. There's a logical conundrum here, people.

The kindest of these kind of posts accuse me of being "elitist" and tell me that my obligation as a professor is not to intellectualism, but to reaching out to and "embracing my students" in some warm and fuzzy way. I don't see those two things as contradictory. I do, however, see that in the years that I have been teaching, I have learned to "care" for my students in ways that are perhaps less maternal and coddling and more rigorous and, yes, critical; this is a conscious decision, and I don't think it's a bad one. I know the bitter statistics about disproportionate expectations students have of women faculty—we are supposed to be more nurturing, less demanding, more forgiving; in short, more "mom" than "Doctor." I also believe that those expectations need to be countered, consciously—it's part of my job. Students need to understand their male professors as potential nurturers, and their female faculty as taskmasters. Even better, I want them to learn, as they go through college, to reserve easy gender judgments and become more astute at judging individuals and their expectations. Best of all, I want them to evaluate their own expectations, then raise them, and be able to meet them. I want them to think of the significance of their classes not as pleasing the professor, but as stretching their own interests and making themselves sweat a bit.

And especially given the current "Dumb is In" climate rampant in the U.S., I'm not sure that a little general intellectual contempt isn't in order. I don't think most of my students feel the gnawing hunger to "be educated" that I felt; I don't think the current cultural moment allows them that, or exposes most of them to the desireability of being knowledgeable in an academic way. This has nothing to do with their innate intelligence, and everything to do with the predominance of light-speed corporate late-capitalism, as far as I can tell. I longed, as an undergraduate, to be someone who could invoke more from my own professors than a little indulgent contempt; the contempt may have been largely projected on my part (I was smarter than that, and they were kinder), but it still spurred me on in ways that warm and fuzzy wouldn't have. As a professor, I certainly don't expect my students to relive my little psycho-drama of inadequacy (this article from The Chronicle of Higher Ed suggests that my psychodrama is not that individual, and that it may account in part for the high rates of depression among grad students), but I think there is something wrong with an entire society that caters so slavishly to its youngest adults (see, for example, the target demographics of any large corporate expenditure) without demanding anything more strenuous than shopping from most of them. I think we do our students a disservice when we suggest that there is no reason for them to be any smarter or more knowledgeable than they are right now, or imply that their every effort, however lame, will be met with acclaim out in the world.

A lot of educators apparently feel zealous about their profession in a way that I'm not convinced is good for us—individually, or as a group. I left one realm of academia largely because its practitioners seemed to get most of their "compensation" in martyrdom. They were woefully underpaid, genuinely underappreciated by their students, colleagues, and administration, and spent most of their time lamenting competitively to each other about how they had spent so much time grading or conferencing or working with students that they hadn't done laundry or read a book in weeks. That's a pretty heavy burden to put on your students—the fact that they prevent you from having a life of your own, and that their learning is supposed to legitimate your great sacrifice on their behalf. Again, I don't think it's good for them--it's not the way real adults ought to live their lives, and if we want students to have the opportunity to be fully and richly adult, I think we need to show that professors (and other teaching types) have lives aside from our interactions with them. At the same time, I give my students my home phone number, and with it, the permission or even invitation to interrupt me in my "private life"; paradoxically, I think it's also necessary for them to learn how important they are to me, and that I genuinely care and will respond if they are having a crisis—whether with verb tenses or a suicidal family member.

However, I don't buy the claim, implicit or explicit, that my profession is akin to the taking of a religious order. Despite my detractors' assertions, I do feel a deep calling for what I do, and most of the satisfaction I get from my work comes from the remarkable development I see in my students. One of the things I hated about my pre-tenure-line life was the drudgery I found in an endless string of freshman courses. Eighteen-year-olds are necessarily narcissistic, and without the older versions of themselves to measure their potential against, I got a bit lost. (I know lots and lots of people would rather teach freshmen; I'm simply not among them. I love my freshmen, but I love them more when I see them later as juniors and seniors, and I enjoy my freshmen more knowing they will become much better people, in most cases, in the next few years). I don't believe that a bracing dose of anonymous cynicism from some blog or another is going to cause my students to crumble and die. They are sturdier than that. I reserve my cynicism for the non-student-centered side of my life, but I insist on having that off-duty space, and on my right to be someone different here than I am in the classroom. I can't believe that the massive edifice of higher education is going to be brought down by me and my fellow snarky professors. But I do think that an excessive concern with students' "self-esteem" at the expense of intellectual rigor may be its death knell. I don't think I need to go out of my way to protect students from my wit, my candor, or even my occasional frustration. Certainly I have a tremendous responsibility to them, especially with regards to how I respond to them and to their work. But frankly, if I want to live my somewhat acerbic life here on this earth, I need some company of the sardonic, non-handwringing type, so that's what I aim to produce. And if several of my commentors here are any indication, my students could use a big dose of vinegar to balance out the cloyingly sweet earnestness that meets them at their classroom doors.


At 3:23 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...


At 4:33 PM , Blogger bitchphd said...

That's a pretty heavy burden to put on your students—the fact that they prevent you from having a life of your own, and that their learning is supposed to legitimate your great sacrifice on their behalf.

A-men and hallelujah. You write such great goddamn posts about teaching.

And yeah, I get nasty comments about what a bitch and shitty teacher I am too. Comes with the territory. There are a lot of assholes out there.

At 12:44 PM , Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

And it always kills me when you (Dorcasina/Dr. B) get those negative responses, too, because those people so clearly don't get it. This *isn't* a religious vocation; it's a job, and it's an important one, but I completely agree that cloying sweetness is not the only way to go all of the time. I once had someone basically call me a fascist for advocating the potential usefulness of pop quizzes because I was using FEAR to motivate the students. Well, you know what? I worked really HARD when I was afraid I was going to do badly! I don't want students to be scared to come to my classes, but I don't think they have to feel calm and peaceful and cosy and happy all the time.

A friend of mine had one of the alltime great reactions to this: "You use new muscles," she said, "you get sore." That's what education is about.

Rant, rant, rant...sorry! :-)

At 6:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the drudgery I found in an endless string of freshman courses. Eighteen-year-olds are necessarily narcissistic, and without the older versions of themselves to measure their potential against, I got a bit lost."

Very insightful. Also, your observations about consumerism are dead-on.

Love the blog!

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