Note: Teaching for the World We Want

14 Dec

I read two pieces on university teaching that I found striking, but for different reasons. Rebecca Schuman argued that it’s time to reconsider the essay requirement in required humanities courses. The argument is something like this: because students dislike writing essays, they therefore produce poor work that is tedious to grade. However, pressure from the students who view the whole process simply as an extended accreditation process–“The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos,” she writes–means that the students will receive higher grades than they “earned.” So the whole exercise ends up being futile. Because “Students hate writing papers [and] professors hate grading papers,” she proposes replacing them with “old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral” that would be harder to fake and easier to grade. I like that this solution identifies a basic problem in the terms of the relationship between teacher and student since more students arrive at college (more poorly prepared, I would add). From my perspective, however, the substantive proposal is is a false solution to a false problem.

More accurately, it’s a false solution to a genuine problem, but the analysis of the problem begins and ends with student antipathy toward writing, the time-consuming nature of grading, and a larger political structure within which students and teachers operate. Probably neither group wants things exactly like this. Students grub for grades in part because they have been groomed to conceive their subjectivity as co-extensive with their being consumers. Professors may inflate grades to avoid conflict, especially if their continued employment depends upon good evaluations.

I would underscore that students often dislike writing essays because they don’t know how. This may be especially true if they came from overcrowded public schools as I did, where teachers have limited time to train them in the fine points of writing beyond The Test. And our colleagues there have to teach to The Test (often products sold to schools by private corporations) in order to secure their own jobs. Some of the students attend college with the understanding that dozens of extracurricular activities will make them stand out as enterprising, flexible, and in short ideal subjects for neoliberal employment. Others have to work long hours outside of coursework and may want to do better but find themselves unable to do so. From their own reports, they feel as harried and stressed out having to write all of their papers (and read all of the work) as we do having the grade them, and we all have to worry about the arbitrary evaluations of some other body. These are just so many banalities to many people reading.

I later read Richard Seymour’s account of the Cops Off Campus protests in London (a protest difficult to imagine in the U.S. where the idea that the policeman is your friend is so much more deeply ingrained, and policing is so thoroughly enmeshed in everyday life). Near the end of his post, Seymour reflected on his position as student and teacher, and then wrote the following:

As a teacher, I have a certain obligation of care toward the students, which seems to me to extend beyond the formal remit of imparting to them the skills they need to get a 2.1 or a first.  At the very least, I think I have to be interested in whether the marketisation, standardisation and bureaucratisation of the education system is serving them well.  Of course, in the light of a certain ideology of excellence, it will serve some of the students very well.  It won’t serve well those students, largely from subaltern groups and lower social classes, whose life chances have already put them at a disadvantage in the institution; whose needs cannot be met by a disciplinary regime; whose sense of their general interest is larger than their career path; and who must perforce occasionally protest because the system fails them.

I wish I understood better the points of convergence and divergence between the U.S. and U.K. school systems, but it seems to me that Seymour and Schuman are describing the same basic phenomenon from different vantage points. I do not think students write poor essays because they don’t see the abstract value of writing, but because of other factors I alluded to, and that Seymour succinctly catalogs. Understanding the intersecting vectors of power and privilege that inflect students’ experience of the university seems to me crucial. I suspect that such analytical attention makes it easier to understand one’s relationship to one’s students in terms of solidarity rather than resentment. That’s the genius of Schuman’s title.

What I find helpful in Seymour’s formulation is that he situates teaching in a specific ethical, political and historical context. What if we consider one’s relationship to students not in terms of providing a service (and I’m in a relatively privileged position to imagine my relationship to students on other terms), but also in terms of our obligations to them as political agents? Would we then see poor performance on essays and in class as forms of protest of a system they sense is failing them, on the one hand, or of basic incompetence (evidence of the systems that have failed them) on the other? Rather than pointing to the success of college dropouts who’ve gone on to found major corporations, shouldn’t we also consider all those people who dropped out and did not go on to that kind of success, without stigmatizing them or naturalizing their “failure”?

Perhaps Schuman wants a world where students are trained to produce answers in exams as evidence of their level-appropriate master of course materials. Played out, reverse-engineering the kinds of preparation they would need in secondary and primary schools to make them into the kinds of students equipped to perform well on such exams, this would be a revolutionary change. It is well-nigh utopian. Likewise, if we actually reverse-engineered the kinds of preparation that would need prior to college to produce essays we would like reading, that, too, would require revolutionary changes and transformations throughout our system of education–indeed, throughout our society–to produce them as the kinds of subjects who could write them.

This is just a note, certainly there’s lots more thinking here, but I’ll end with this: in its ideal form, there are ways of teaching the essay that encourages students to think of them as on fundamentally equal footing, and in need of sophistication. I suspect there’s a complicity between corporate models of the university relate to the metaphor of “molding” young minds (prof as artisan, young minds as raw materials), but I think we do open pathways to help students mold themselves.

But that’s too idealistic, so I’ll end with my favorite citation about teaching as a kind of joke. In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze discusses the pedagogical relationship and produces an astonishing passage:

Teachers already know that errors or falsehoods are rarely found in homework (except in those exercises where a fixed result must be produced, or propositions must be translated one by one). Rather, what is more frequently found – and worse – are nonsensical sentences, remarks without interest or importance, banalities mistaken for profundities, ordinary ‘points’ confused with singular points, badly posed or distorted problems – all heavy with dangers, yet the fate of us all. We doubt whether, when mathematicians engage in polemic, they criticize each other for being mistaken in the results of their calculations. Rather, they criticize one another for having produced an insignificant theorem or a problem devoid of sense. Philosophy must draw the conclusions which follow from this.

The value of the essay is not the essay, but the process of writing it, of refining ideas to learn the difference between the banal and the profound, the ordinary and the singular, how to pose a problem. We teach them that because we want them–and each other–to be able to do that.

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