Punishment is “cool”; thinking is not

Twice a year our college has an Academic Affairs day before the quarter.  This day is set aside for a presentation to the faculty followed by breakout sessions for professional development.  Over the past five years I have struggled with all of the speakers we’ve had.  Part of the reason that I’ve struggled is that I find these sessions to be infantilizing and demeaning.  For example, the speaker today began the session by giving away copies of his books, explaining that everyone “likes free stuff.”  He gave away two books by calling out for the “first female who wanted it to stand up.”  Surely there could have been no deep meaning there at all.  Of course, a couple of hours earlier, I was speaking to my Labrador Retriever that way about a treat.  I don’t do it to humans though.  On other occasions we’ve been given highlighters and butcher paper to draw out our relations—I can’t remember it all.  I try to block it out.  But I go every year, after all, the poor academic associates have been made to sit there and check the faculty in as if they were children.  We used to all have premade nametags and the associates would be able to report on those faculty who weren’t there by gathering the ones that were left over.  As you might imagine, faculty started taking their friends’ and colleagues’ tags to cover for them.  Now we have a list.

Wow.  So today I’m sitting in a room full of teachers and deans who are being forced to listen to a purported expert on student engagement.  Of course, we might think it is ironic that he’s one of the most inexperienced teachers in the room.  So, obviously, he’s an expert in what it takes to make students successful.  We’re three minutes into the presentation and he’s talking about getting students into the career they want through an academic path.  Once again, we have the reduction of school and education to being merely about a career.  He brings this up over and over again throughout the first half of the presentation.  And he keeps talking about the way to get students engaged is to show them a point to their education and that point is that the student gets to have a career and make money.  He brought up salary a good deal.  Because, as we’ve been indoctrinated to believe again and again, it’s all about the money.

There’s an irony here.  Just before he launched into this tirade about being career focused, he explained our students to us.  He essentialized them as a generation, millennials to be exact.  He told us that they wanted purpose in their education, that they wanted their work to have meaning.  Well, never mind that I often have three generations of students in my class or that my students have multifaceted identities and personhoods which prevent such easy categorization, let’s go with his assumption for a minute.  He assumes that the purpose the students are seeking—that the meaning they are seeking—is a career and money.  He then goes on to say that the problem with college admissions is that we give the student the “sales pitch” that they will have to write papers, do home work, read text books that “aren’t exciting” on top of working, just to get to that career.  His method of engagement is to make that sound better by explicitly connecting a job to that path so that they “buy in” and are engaged.  The irony is that this is his exact misunderstanding of students and the purposes of education.  His neoliberal essentialist ideology, as unexamined as it is asks: “how can we fit students into the neo-liberal framework in a way that they will accept” and asks the faculty to be a party to the corporate and market-driven subjugation of everything and everyone.

And that, folks, is why it often fails and students resist.  Because, if we accept that students really want purpose, then we also have to accept that there are purposes and meaning beyond fitting into the economy. The speaker was setting it up even, but couldn’t see it.  He recounted that students, after seeing their parents work like slave just to survive, wanted something better.  Of course his better is a better job where they can have a different kind of less uncomfortable oppression, rather than taking that moment and developing it as a place for critical consciousness.  He isn’t liberating them and is only performing a kind of shell game.

Sadly it went further. The presentation had a racial migroagression, classist jokes, and was rife with anti-intellectualism.  He presented the standard Horatio Alger narrative where he was just a poor waif with a bad GPA who pulled himself up to eventually be Greek of the year at his university.  Yes, he said that; unironically I might add. The presentation seemed to be designed to demoralize the faculty—after all, here’s a guy who gets money to do this, who is lauded in our culture, who was taught by our colleagues somewhere and he is incredibly blind to how the world is constructed—and we’re sitting here, listening to it.  He showed no ability to demonstrate critical thinking about his position or his audience at all.  The joke is on us and it shows how powerless we are.  And it also reveals the multi-faceted and layered levels of privilege and oppression.    Of course, as one of my dear colleagues pointed out: apparently all we need to get an education and a jog and to overcome oppression is to speak enthusiastically and say “cool” more than one thought was humanly possible.

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2 thoughts on “Punishment is “cool”; thinking is not

  1. mmeade says:

    Love the post. What bothers me particularly about this neoliberal approach is that it forgets it had any hand in crafting students’ desires that learning be explicitly tied to material gain. It’s as if they believe students naturally see education as solely a vocational enterprise, which is completely untrue. Spend any time inside college classrooms, and you’ll find students who actually want to learn for the sake of broadening their thinking, perspectives, and skill sets. Yes, those things are economically valuable, but putting the cart before the horse often results in a dead horse.

  2. Robert says:

    Oh, man, I listened to countless such banal, presumptuous, condescending pep talks at Metro. In every one of them the speaker was utterly clueless to the reality of the students in my classroom. With only two exceptions, my dozen deans likewise. By my innate curiosity and inquiry and open mind, I was able to inspire my students to tell me in their narratives everything, I mean everything, about their lives, pasts, hopes, fears, dreads, dreams, horrors, addictions, parents, drugs, crimes, and ecstasies. I allowed them to be totally honest, and I remained nonjudgmental. I nudged, I asked, I encouraged, I coached, I praised. “Fantastic! Tell me more!” This process not only improved their writing and their thinking, it inspired respect for the mind and heart and language and higher education in its truest, deepest sense. Somewhere way down the line, it also made them smarter, wiser, stronger, and better potential employees and world citizens. Though I often resented the nonteaching educators who were forced to implement unrealistic policies and procedures and to pressure us classroom teachers to do what we thought preposterous, I also felt sorry for them. They had little or no idea what I was actually doing and dealing with each time I entered a Metro classroom. To give just a hint of the world I encountered there, I’ll say that two of my students, responding to my usual prompt that they tell the story of the most life-altering experience of their lives, confessed to murders. By contrast, one of my deans, compelled by the nonteaching educator above him to say something, anything, on my annual evaluation, remarked, “Bob has a really good chalkboard technique.” What can you do but roll your eyes and sadly shake your head? Another year, I had tried on my syllabus to be creative in my grading guidelines. Discouraged by late and missing students in classes, I had stated that students would receive final grades of A for Perfect Attendance (no absences, no tardies, no early dismissals), for Special Effort and Perseverance, for Exceptionally Poetic Language, for Unusual Creativity, for Convincing Logic and Reason, for Standard Usage and Grammar, for Helpful Class Participation, for several other such achievements, and also for Extraordinary Honesty. At my annual evaluation, my dean immediately brought out onto his desk my syllabus, he pointed to Extraordinary Honesty, and he said, “You’ll have to take this off of your list.” “Why?” I asked. “It encourages students to disclose matters that are best left private,” he explained. “You know, possible litigation.”


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