In June 2010 I started working with men who have been arrested for using violence against women. (That’s when I also started never shutting up about working with men who use violence or what the work has taught me.) By “working with” I mean co-facilitating critical-dialogue groups in a feminist program designed to foster social change by helping men who hurt women figure out why they believe in doing it and how to stop. A month into having those conversations I’d reached two conclusions: 1. since high school I’ve used a lot of violence against girls and women in relationships; 2. many well-accepted teaching norms are just forms of dominance that teachers use to enforce student compliance regardless of whether it actually fosters or shows learning.
Visit a men’s group sometime then go hang out with a bunch of teachers commiserating over coffee or beers. Listen to how each group talks about the dominance they’re entitled to, the compliance they’re owed, and the character deficiencies they perceive in women and students who won’t comply:
What — am I just supposed to let myself get taken advantage of?
Should I just let them get away with it? I don’t think so.
I think we’ve earned the right to some deference in these matters.
I’m right. They’re wrong.
They want us to be in charge, and I’ve heard some of them say so.
Every time I let them make their own choices they just ask me what they should do.
Some of them just won’t ever get it no matter how many times I sit them down, clearly explain it, and make them repeat it back to me.
Maybe if I _____ I can get them to _____.
What’s wrong with them? Why do they have to make it so hard?
It’s their sense of entitlement that really pisses me off.
They just want everything handed to them.
I worked for what I have; why should they get to expect anything different?
There was a time when everyone knew their roles.
It’s tough to take them seriously when what they believe is so stupid.
They know exactly how to push my buttons.
Not to stereotype, but why do they all _____?
This whole place is set up to coddle them, and I’m sick of it.
They just want to turn the tables.
Why can’t they just do what I tell them to do?
I know more about what’s good for them than they do.
I shouldn’t have to tell them; they should just know.
It’s not my fault if they don’t know how to work hard.
It’s not my fault if they’re just not smart.
It’s not my fault if they’re lazy.
It’s not my fault if they have no common sense.
I’ve never aspired to dominance (which means I’ve been a passively dominant asshole many more times than I’ll live long enough to make amends for). I’m uninterested in trying to come across as the hip, cool, laid-back teacher-dude who’s really just your bud (because let’s not be coy about institutional-power hierarchies in classrooms, shall we?) but I’m repulsed by the ideas of expecting deference, figuring out how to put “my” students in their place, and doing anything else that emphasizes compliance over learning. The older I get the more similarities I see between performances of Teacher Who Takes No Slack or Professor Who Demands Respect (especially among men) and Taylor Mali’s kind-of famous “What Teachers Make” routine.
That routine. Good grief. I just … I mean I …
Listen, I know some of you like Mali’s schtick enough not to see it as schtick. I know a lot of teachers feel inspired by it. On Facebook I occasionally see parents or students share it as a declaration of solidarity with and appreciation for teachers. It’s quite possible my perception of it is way off.
But I have trouble expressing how much I hate it. I feel Madeline Kahn-as-Mrs.-White-in-Clue levels of apoplectic contempt for it. I feel really really creeped out by and dismissive of and judgmental toward what it says and how it sounds, partially because versions of that guy show up in men’s group very often. And partially because I used to believe my own versions of what Mali brays about during his little monologue.
I used to bully students while telling myself I was giving them opportunities they ought to thank me for. Teachers at all levels do that a lot. We do a lot of compassionate, kind, patient stuff, too. But we push vulnerable people around more than we admit, then we help each other justify doing it.
In the September 2004 Ripsaw News I wrote a piece about an instance in which I’d just absolutely browbeat a whole class of students, except at the time I thought it was about how I’d justifiably shown “tough love” to them. For a couple-three years after it came out I directly and indirectly heard how much some other teachers in the area identified with what I’d written. In fall 2005 (or maybe 2006?) I taught one semester of first-year English at UWS, and early in the semester a couple professors whose offices were down the hall from the one where I had a desk popped their heads in to say something that amounted to, “You’re the guy who wrote that Ripsaw piece about students who don’t want to think for themselves! We love it! We have it taped to our doors so lazy students can read it!”
I didn’t mean for it to be about “lazy students.” (As an adult who spent junior high and high school being told I was lazy by adults who had no interest in seeing what I actually was, I’ve never been super fond of that term and the breathtaking sense of superiority it depends on.) I meant for it to be about bullshit academic norms, including teachers’ imperiousness, that put students in impossible positions they get blamed for. I’d been questioning dominance-and-compliance-based teaching norms for a while, but I wasn’t real good at seeing how I enacted them. I hadn’t meant to badmouth students but I did. (I also had a couple students thank me for noticing some difficult aspects of how they have to deal with teachers, so I must have conveyed at least a bit of what I was trying to say.)
Some of the intentions and beliefs underlying what the piece says and my decision to write it are identical to my current beliefs about teachers and teaching. Some are so different that when I re-read the piece a couple nights ago I felt simultaneously grateful (for having changed in ways I consider evolution and progress) and embarrassed (for having so completely missed so much of my own wackness).
Here’s the whole piece, as it ran:
Ten minutes after I kicked all 27 students out of a UMD freshman composition class last October, one of them sent me an e-mail that basically said this: “We pay a lot of money to go to school here, and we deserve better than to have you waste a whole class period like you just did. Even though none us had done the homework, we could have worked really hard today.”
He’s a smart kid, erudite beyond his age and pleasantly rebellious. He’d stated his case tactfully, firmly, in writing sharper than what I often receive from colleagues. The only surprising aspect of his message was how he completely missed the point of being booted.
I kicked him and his classmates out not only because they hadn’t done their homework, but because of why they’d avoided it. The assignment required confrontation of questions without answers. It seemed impossible. So they did what many students have been conditioned to do: hoped the teacher would tell them what to think and say.
Students too lazy or frightened to think for themselves crack my patience, but their impulses, even the apathetic ones, make sense. Academia is a game of shifting, conflicting expectations; students must become masters at negotiating arbitrary notions of academic “success.” Pandering to a teacher’s desires is usually easier and much more comfortable than risking criticism and a low grade by taking initiative. And only rarely are students taught how to think, instead of how to repeat facts or adhere to a particular teacher’s doctrine. They wind up learning how to pass classes, not how to be active, thoughtful human beings.
Many teachers maintain comfort and self-confidence by avoiding ambiguity. Instead of fostering intellectual confidence, and instead of welcoming the question “Why?” and its unpredictable challenges, such teachers produce students who ask only, “What should I do? What will get me a good grade? What do you want?” They fail by doling out falsely definitive answers, when integrity and courage require them to challenge students: “What do you think you should do? High grades are worthless without knowledge. What I want is irrelevant.”
Students who seek the shortest distance between points Q and A — or who go blank when confronted with questions that beget more questions — are prominent and troubling, but again, they’re only doing what they’ve been taught: follow the rules and get “good grades,” and your job will be complete; don’t investigate beyond requirements; fulfill obligations, regardless of whether the “Why?” behind them makes sense.
Their misplaced college priority — a lucrative degree in minimal time and without ostensibly irrelevant work — reflects a culture that favors an illusion of simplicity over the acknowledgment of complexity. Instead of learning to value and apply broad knowledge, our students are conditioned to develop and assert a sense of entitlement. My student’s e-mail echoed a common demand: “You work for us. Give us what we paid for.”
To which I always respond: “My job is to challenge you, not to keep you comfortable. This is your education. Do you want to control it, or are you cool with it controlling you?”
I’d asked my students to paraphrase a Spin review of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief (rephrasing others’ ideas accurately is a skill with value far beyond freshman comp). The review’s challenging vocabulary and esoteric pop culture references immediately crushed them. “We can’t do this,” they wailed in various ways. “How can we paraphrase stuff we can’t even understand?”
It was dense writing. I’d had to read it four or five times, with dictionary.com and Google at hand, to grasp its most challenging passages. That’s why I chose it. I wanted to illustrate the difference between “can’t understand” and “don’t understand.” I wanted them to experience the process and rewards of deciphering difficult writing instead of simply reading past it. And I hoped they would learn that only time and experience, not innate ability, separate them from instructors and professors, whose intellectual superiority is an imposing myth (and too often perpetuated by the people whose egos it stokes).
We decided that they’d study the review, then come to the next class prepared for deep discussion. But when class time came, they sat mute, and not one hand went up when I asked who had actually read the review. So five minutes into class, I told them to beat it, and not to come back till they were ready uphold their end of the arrangement.
Every semester I have honors students who can’t connect academic facts to life outside the collegiate womb. I also have kids defined — by themselves and accepted academic standards — as slackers, but who write skillful essays and express agile thoughts because knowledge interests them more than grades. Mostly, and most sadly, I have a big glob of gray matter too insecure to even consider independent thought.
My 25 comp students wanted simple directions for a challenging assignment. Such directions didn’t exist, but I could have spouted a mindless rubric disguised as teaching. I could do that in every class — just tell students what to write. Comfort like that tempts me every day.
But I prefer to rail against lazy, conditioned priorities. My students get angry — “Just tell us what you want!” — but they also make decisions instead of mindlessly co-opting answers. If worthless conformity is the alternative, I’ll keep pissing them off, and I’ll always tell them exactly why I’m doing it.
Ugh. That essay. Good grief. I just … I mean I …
I felt it all when I wrote it. I remember where that version of me was coming from and who he was trying to connect with. I know how hard he was trying to be different from the teachers who’d dismissed and shamed him. His intentions were admirable. He had so much to learn.
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