Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sign(s) o' the Times

This morning, I saw a gigantic black Escalade (Cadillac's SUV)--tinted windows, those annoying trendy "spinners," booming bass emanating from deep within. On the back were two bumper stickers: "Bob Marley lives" (including a sketched image) and "Liberal=open-minded, etc., etc." (not enough time to read). I took it as my daily sign to beware of easy generalizations. But I still wonder what kind of "liberal" drives a Cadillac SUV (a wealthy one, obviously).

My students don't like to talk about sex. Not their own, not other people's. We were reviewing the argument of Foucault's History of Sexuality (grossly oversimplified, that sex is not so much repressed in Western culture as it is medicalized and made into a subject of scrutiny, investigation, and discourse). We were trying to talk about the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational, more largely, and I was trying to get them to see how that binary forces certain aspects of human-ness into the realm of the abnormal or pathological. Even my purportedly "queer" students were quaintly shocked by this discussion, and by the idea that one could understand human experience in other than strictly evaluative terms. [Okay, maybe it was my reference to "Penthouse" that shocked them...]

It is what I love and hate about this generation--or, at least, the tiny segment of it I see here at our semi-liberal campus. My students are sweet, obedient, docile--to a fault. Their loveliness of spirit and their deference to authority make them a great pleasure to work with (almost none of the whining and entitlement I saw at my former, big state institution), but get in the way of their willingness to "play" with the deadly serious business of their education. I am very conscious of certain students who resent the amount of class time I allot to what might generously be called "community building"--things like learning each other's names, getting comfortable in a group, considering the meta-levels of classroom discourse, pedagogy, and the room's layout. I see those few who, annoyed, stop writing 30 seconds into one of my tangential spiels, realizing, "Oh, this is not important."

I don't know if it's my age (rapidly advanced, once someone pointed out, unkindly, that my current freshmen were born in [gasp!] 1987), but I find myself not just willing but eager to shock them, and to stir them from their habitual complacency and diligence. They are so accepting of the social and political values around them, and so very cynical about any effort to make large-scale change in the world, even as they are acutely aware of injustice. They are suspicious of what they see as my ivory-tower naivete, or my incipient dementia. They offer me bemusedly tolerant expressions and polite laughter.

When I was their age, the only thing more important than actually having sex was talking about it--a lot. And not in Foucault's clinical analytical mode, but in outrageously "naughty" terms, as if to suggest that one's verbal lack of inhibition was matched only by one's wanton hedonism behind closed doors. It was one of the great pleasures of adulthood, for me--the freedom to make risque puns, and to imply an erotic life that was perhaps more vividly imagined than performed.

Like all of my favorite "adult" vices (cigarettes, bourbon, sheer stockings, disenchanted novelists whose prose and conversation were both peppered with the word "fuck"), the pleasures of talking about sex seem to have fallen by the wayside. For my poor students, or most of them, adulthood is a serious and deadly-dull job, one they feel compelled to take on far, far too early.

10 Comments:

At 9:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the parent of one of those 1987 "models" who is now a college freshman. Classes focused on discussion are a joy to him, but much of that may be because he was homeschooled. He has become aware of looming pressures such as college costs and health insurance. With such high expenses, many of his friends hope to get out in three years. Of course, at that point will they be able to obtain a job with health insurance? If they're not full-time students, coverage isn't available under their parents' policies.

You're right, this is a serious group of young people. And, that's rather sad to me.

Elizabeth

 
At 10:44 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Elizabeth,
How right you are! If you have read my previous posts, you will know that questions of healthcare, and indeed the eradication of every aspect of the "safety net," is one of the central issues for me. I sadly know firsthand how essential--and how rare--decent coverage can be (and how extraordinarily expensive). Like you, I'm deeply saddened by this aspect of how my students have had to "grow up"--would that they could experience the "privilege" (I wish it weren't) of at least a few years to learn just for the love of learning.

I hope I can provide just a taste of that learning for its own sake, and yet respect and be sympathetic to the increasingly frightening world they are going to graduate into. I hope I can unsettle their seriousness at least long enough to suggest the possibility that things could be changed...

 
At 11:11 AM , Anonymous drh said...

I was a T.A. at a not-so-large, publicbut prestigious state school in the mid-Atlantic for 2 years.

Although I taught history, I also witnessed a general reluctance to engage with the larger issues my subject was sometimes lucky enough to bring up. I interpreted this as intellectual laziness rather than premature seriousness.

But I think that I caught this from the other end of the spectrum - that being a school filled with students who are going to postpone adulthood as long as they possibly can. They drive around in their SUVs, talking on cell phones, sometimes rallying for just causes, but mostly drinking and sleeping around. They volunteer at soup kitchens or immigrant literacy workshops, but don't have the slightest notion of what it means to respect the people around them or practice stewardship of their immediate and larger worlds. These are clearly children who are smart and articulate, but whose backgrounds give no perspective to their lives and acheivements....

I know I'm committing gross generalizations with this comment, but the luxury of being able to experience privilege does not always lead to the desire to learn or a love of learning, especially if privilege is all they've ever known.

 
At 12:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

First let me thank you for linking to Alibris. As to your post, I knew many at my high school who wore tie-dye shirts, and both listened to AND drove BMW. It seems hypocritical, but they were searching for something to believe in and had nothing in the present - only the past. As for sex, I think many may use this medium (the Internet) to discuss and explore anonymously - for good or for bad. I know we do a robust 'erotica' business.

Thanks again for using Alibris.

-AJ

A.J. Kohn
Director, Direct Marketing and Sales
Alibris

 
At 2:04 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

drh,
I hear you--my previous teaching was at a school (and with a population of students) much like you describe; I had a totally different take on those students (and, of course, the few always suffered for the many who DO fit those descriptions). My current students are far more deferential, and not nearly so emphatically "consumer" (or consumption?) oriented--at least not as gleefully so.

And I certainly hope I didn't equate educational privilege with desire; I was thinking more that it is a terrible shame that our society has perpetuated the idea that "liberal arts" education "for its own sake" is somehow appropriately the purview of the privileged.

A.J. Kohn,
I adore alibris, and I have the groaning bookshelves (and a pending order) to prove it. I love you guys so much that I won't even gripe (well, not much) about the two cheap copies of P.D. James's latest that have been purchased out from under me while I browsed....

 
At 2:06 PM , Blogger bitchphd said...

They are a serious lot. But I wonder if maybe they *are* talking about sex--just not with, you know, their professors....

 
At 2:08 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Ouch, BphD--you really know how to hurt a girl...
I didn't want confessions, you understand! I just wanted them to enjoy the presence of the taboo in the classroom.

 
At 9:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I have read your eloquent entries on your husband's illness and death. Health care coverage (the lack of it, the gaps and cost if you have it, etc.) concerns me deeply. So many of us are just a job termination away from no coverage at all.

As to the discussion about sex. Here is another take: Since grades are often dependent on class participation, might there be some natural inhibition of expressing the wrong viewpoint (whatever that is) and having it unfavorably impact one's grade? I'm not saying this is occurring in your classroom, just thinking this might be front and center in a scared freshman's thoughts!

Elizabeth

 
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At 7:42 PM , Blogger Joe Berenguer said...

Hello Friend! I just came across your blog and wanted to
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