Tag Archives: Teaching English

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.

Tagged , , , , ,

Rhetoric of Love in the Classroom

One of the things that I think that happens with my students is that many of their educational experiences have dismissed their reading of the world.  The experiences and perspectives that they bring to the classroom are not validated and are instead thrown away.  Then comes the banking system and the oppression.  The student’s language isn’t appropriate in an academic context, so throw it out—the student does not dress right or act right or talk proper—they’ll never get a job.  So many teachers work from the perspective of deficit and limitation.  Just last week I was sitting in a meeting full of English teachers and someone in the back said “they have to have the foundation of the academic essay by the time that they leave developmental writing.”  It’s shit like this that makes me cringe.  I want to hear how my students read the world and hear what their voice and vision is.  Simply imposing a staid and stodgy form on them so that they can be “academic” is fruitless.  Students disengage in this moment.  They cannot read the world the way that those who have been indoctrinated by the academy and it’s arrogant for us to assume that they need to do so.  Reading the world in the classroom must be reciprocal and recursive rather that unidirectional.

And what I’ve just written is a political act—because if I get a student to believe that their reading of the world is legitimate, then they might resist that rejection in a different and more productive way the next time they encounter a teacher.  It’s still too easy though—teacher power in the classroom can shape us in surprisingly insidious ways.

Students have a right to read the world with their experience.  I assert that this is both a Freirian and a poststructuralist moment.  I’ve been thinking of Corder’s 1985 article “Rhetoric as Love” recently and want to come back to his notion of the self as a narrative.  He writes that the person/subject is always stationing that self within its narrative, that is her or his history and identity (17).  Corder goes on to discuss how these narratives come into contact with one another.  Freire would seem to agree with this sentiment in that his consciousness-raising pedagogy asks the student/person/subject to understand their history and its context.  What Freire is drawing on the student to do then is to understand their narrative in ways that it hasn’t been understood before—and through that process to give the narrative and the history and the subject value.

Return with me then to the English teacher who is demanding that the student understand the academic essay by the end of a developmental writing course.  That demand is for the student to adopt a particular way of creating narrative, and it is one without regard to the student’s own story and history.  It seems, in some way, because of its demand for dominance, to be destined to fail.

Not long after I heard this English teacher, I heard another English teacher telling her colleagues that she was going to start administering a test at the beginning of her classes to see of students could follow directions.  I eavesdropped.  She went on to tell her colleagues that the test would be like one that she had to take when she was in high school.  It would have a series of instructions, with the last one being something like: don’t do any of the other instructions, just write your name on the paper and turn it in to the teacher.  This colleague of mine was sure that this would show students the importance of following directions.  I was silent.  For me, that exercise only ensures humiliation and the disengagement of students.  It would make them feel stupid.  I would be right there with the students too—I’m the type of student who dives right in—I want to do well and please the teacher after all.  But my colleague had a different story for that and a different history.

And I think that the arguments that these teachers are making are serious ones.  The kind of high stakes arguments that Corder argues make people feel threatened when they are opposed.  The arguments as I seem them are: 1. Students should be able to write academic prose; and 2. Students should be able to follow directions.  I like both of those.  And heck, I can follow directions and I can write academic prose, but I don’t think those skills are the most important thing about me, nor do I think that they encompass my personhood in totality.  And there, I think, is the rub.  When we are interested only in one totalizing narrative of what it means to be a student, then we marginalize and dismiss, even oppress, other ways of knowing and learning in the classroom.

Corder wants to see argument as emergence, a sort of Burkean entry into the parlor, but more interior—Corder wants argument to invite us to know the other and for the other to know us.  It’s a much riskier prospect than making sure those darn students get it right and failing the ones who don’t.  Corder makes the assertion and that argument and rhetoric must begin, proceed, and end in love (28).  For me, this move sounds like Freire and his admonition that the oppressed must not become the oppressor and that the binary relationship must be broken.

But what does that mean in the English classroom and how are students going to meet standards if you just love them? I don’t want to be glib here, because being a loving teacher is my goal and my attempted practice.  I know that my students write more and think more than they ever have because they feel valued and heard—two words that I would argue are conditions of love.  I have students who want to keep their narrative—the one where I’m a jerk and responsible for their failure—I can’t always change that.  But if we talk about how we are creating a classroom space and then we work to enact it, then amazing things happen.  They become writers and thinkers and those words become part of the way that they identify themselves in the world—the are more conscious in the Freirian sense.

Tagged , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: