Talking about IT: privilege and politics in the classroom

Lots of college instructors feel the urgency and difficulty of talking to our students during especially troubling social and political times. On the one hand, we are taught that our classrooms, like good newspapers, are supposed to be fair, balanced and apolitical. It’s supposed to be our job to teach students how to think better without becoming overly normative about the particulars. But when we are faced with raging ignorance, gross injustice, and threats to our most basic values, the pressure and responsibility to speak in more clearly values-based terms grows.

The narrow space we occupy is revealed to be even tighter when we consider that our students, primed by gun fever and a white supremacist president, may use weapons or cars to mow us down in the parking lot if they don’t like us. And we must add to the mix that those same angry students may well have parents who have the ear of the provost, the president, or a university regent with the power to strip us of our very livelihoods. We want to do the right thing — to create a space for authentic discussion in the face of evil — and we also want to keep ourselves safe and secure.

Except that, as it happens, safety and security comes only through the embrace of and identification with privilege. For ostensibly white, middle-class, heteronormative instructors, the “politics” question arises in the midst of unavoidably huge, newsworthy events such as “race riots,” anti-immigrant policies, or heedless wars. But for everyone else — for example, the visibly black, brown, foreign, Jewish, Muslim or queer — “political considerations” shape nearly every gesture and choice. When Black Lives Matter was finally deemed worthy of mainstream media attention, many white professors began to wonder earnestly about how to discuss it with students. But, of course, black people had been dying all along at the hands of police officers. It took mainstream media interest to make it classroom worthy because that was when it began to matter to most of us who are white.

It is a tribute to the victims of highly publicized hate crimes that we are moved by their stories to address social issues in the classroom. It would only deepen the tragedy were business to proceed as usual in the wake of their murders. But such pedagogical tributes also threaten to devolve into a one-off performance of social penance by otherwise apolitical instructors. The suddenly concerned professor leverages this dramatically political news cycle to bravely initiate a discussion — understanding full well that silence equals complicity — and then breathes a sigh of relief when the news changes and it’s time to return to the “real” curriculum.

It is a reflection of a professor’s privilege when this turns out to be a temporary, almost seasonal pedagogical question. Our students and colleagues of color, or those who appear to be foreign or queer, never enjoy the escape into apolitical repose from which they can emerge at will. For them, existence itself, as a person, a citizen, and a professor, is always already highly charged. In the eyes of students, parents, and administrators they are, by and large, deemed guilty of political advocacy — and this is treated as a sort of failing to be indulged or monitored — simply because they exist.

Bravely socially conscious instructors have been here all along, maneuvering around perceptions and accusations that they lack objectivity or are mired in “identity politics” — as shameful as being called a feminist or a liberal — fighting for dignity and fairness. It’s just that they are generally too far behind the sexy headlines for the more privileged among us to notice or care. Anyone who wants to be a genuine ally in the struggle for social justice must risk “talking about it” well before and long after Dan Rather has decided it is time to care.

The Sweet Ego Boost of Teaching

If you ask college professors what they love about their work, they’ll likely wax on about the vibrant intellectual discussion, the synergy of mind meeting mind, and the joy of seeing the lights go on in students’ eyes. What only a handful will cop to is that the performative aspect of owning the room, of being the focus of all of those captive, attentive eyes can be a powerful, addictive ego boost.

Having spent some decades as a quietly performative teacher with a presence that attracted and held student attention, I’m speaking first hand. Although I’m essentially an introvert and even a little shy, I quickly discovered the heady satisfaction of helping my students learn, sure, but also of getting to strut my (hard-earned) stuff.

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For all I know, some ego element might just be endemic to performative activities, whether in sports, theater, politics or teaching. It might even be that some capacity to feel this satisfaction is part of what makes some people great teachers. Perhaps they are who they are, in part, because they derive this ego satisfaction, which does not rule out, of course, the existence of more altruistic motives as well.

What seems clear enough to me, though, is that an online teacher will suffer in  proportion to her or his addiction to this classroom attention. If what you most dig about teaching is the adoration-fest — and it’s good to be ruthlessly honest about this — say, some version of the dead poets society, then you’re out of luck in the virtual world. Here there’s little reward for one’s charisma or spontaneous wit. And those looks we cultivate? The horn-rimmed glasses, elbow patches, or whatever visual markers we have used to cultivate authority and presence? Gone, gone, gone.

And so cutting loose from the physical classroom can be eye opening to the point of burning one’s retinas. If you fall into a full-bodied embrace of online teaching, at least for a little while, you will be dragged out of the cave and forced to notice the degree to which your love of teaching has been grounded in the attention of students who think you’re awesome. It’s an opportunity born of loss, then, as so many are, a stripping away of some of the most addictive, self-serving, trappings of the teaching endeavor.

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None of this is to say that there are not lots and lots of intrinsically good things about a spontaneous, dynamic physical classroom or that enjoying student attention is bad. When done well, in-person dialogue creates a magic that cannot be replicated in online discussions (which, as it turns out, are very hard to do well). But I think we are fools if we fail to explore what the minimalism of online teaching can reveal about how we have relied on teaching to satisfy cravings for acceptance and approval.

Of course, this post may really just be a description of my own experience. For me, the shift to online precipitated a gentle, not entirely unpleasant, upheaval in my own sense of identity and self-worth. In fat, this was how I learned that my sense of self had been, without my really knowing it, anchored partly in the mild student adulation I had enjoyed. How liberating to discover that the power and alchemy of teaching is so much more deeply rooted than the shallow pond of my own ego!

Plunging into Online Teaching

The first time I taught online was about a decade ago when I got pulled in like a tug of war contestant into a mud pit. A mid-career philosophy professor, I was a good teacher, a popular teacher, content with my pedagogical approach and buoyed by the energy of the face-to-face classroom.

I approached the challenge of online teaching like a translation problem: how to interpret my existing course into a virtual one. Back then there weren’t many online education resources to save me from this error, but even if there had been, I doubt I would have paid much attention. My real weakness was that I didn’t fully get that my classroom teaching represented a particular modality, one with its own accidental logic and underlying values. I couldn’t fundamentally rethink my strategy — lecture, discuss, exam, repeat — because it all seemed too basic and fundamental to deeply question. It’s no surprise, then, that this first foray into the virtual classroom was less than successful. I left with my ego bruised, feeling bad for my students, and resentful that I’d been nudged into participating.

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Fast forward and I am now deeply immersed in online teaching. Instead of fighting the waves, and tightening my grip on long-standing pedagogical habits and commitments, I am beginning to relax into the unfamiliarity of it. I can accept, at least sometimes, that this is not merely a shadow version of being a “real professor,” but, rather, a fundamentally different enterprise. I had been like the traveler unable to appreciate new vistas until she recognizes the biases she carries with her. I couldn’t see what online teaching had to offer until I could view my traditional teaching values and practices from a distance. At some point, I began to recognize my habitual way of teaching as involving particular, and changeable, assumptions, values and strategies. I still hold onto some of my traditional ways, and there are others whose loss I will probably always mourn. But for all of that, I am moving forward.

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I won’t sugarcoat this. My experiences with online teaching and my feelings about it are complicated. But the project of engaging with it is one that has transformed not just my teaching, but also my relationship to change itself. In ways I painstakingly explore in this blog, I am not only a better online teacher than I used to be, but I think I’m a better teacher period. Certainly, I am less ego-focused, less change-averse, and less nostalgic than I used to be. While I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for online education — I still rail against its worst tendencies — I have warmed to it enough so that it is working for me and my students. And even if I never taught another online class, I would still be enriched from having looked back on my pedagogical values and commitments from the shore of this new virtual land.

When students refuse to follow our orders and advice

According to the quirkily wise Byron Katie, when we get angry with others, it is often because they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them. We operate with an implicit master script, she explains, that can include quite specific ideas about how THEY are supposed to act. Not surprisingly, we may become irritated, even incensed, when they deviate from the plot line, even though THEY may not agree they’re bound to our plan or even be aware of it. No where do I find this account more relevant than with students, especially when, like now, I am feverishly preparing a new class. One way I now understand my efforts to meticulously craft a new syllabus and painstakingly word my assignments is that I am, effectively, trying to nudge students into doing what I want.

What a revelation it is to learn that we really can’t make other free agents do our bidding even when it is actually in their best interest to follow our orders or advice. We all know this, of course, but we often fail to assimilate this fact, especially in contexts such as teaching, parenting, and management where there are obvious power and responsibility imbalances. This explains why so many “bosses” start out asking nicely — as if they are actually requesting — but quickly transform into barking autocrats. A managerially sophisticated veneer initially compels them to proceed as if they work with underlings rather than over them, but, in reality, these bosses simply expect others to fall into line. We teachers too often make a nice show of being committed to student agency and pedagogical equality, but when it comes down to it, we still expect students to quietly accept our authority.

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I am not suggesting that it’s somehow wrong when we instructors operate this way — a healthy dose of manipulative pedagogical hierarchy often gets the job done, I think — but, of course, general expectations of student obeisance are simply foolish. Our students, like our friends, insurance agents, lovers, and political representatives — ultimately do as they damn well please. Their behavior may be rude, self-sabotaging, brilliant or mystifying, but it belongs to them. And, just so, though I may be pleased, irritated or indifferent in reaction to them, my responses belong to me. In fact, it is often only when I realize that I am supremely irritated by someone that I recognize I had quite specific expectations of them in the first place.

Even if I remain quite convinced that my advice to students is spot on, it fascinates me that I can become so prickly at their failure to follow it. And I can’t help but notice other teachers too who claim to radically respect student agency and autonomy even as they take it quite personally when students don’t obey them. I’m not, of course, suggesting that it’s bad or wrong to become irritated when someone fails to meet our expectations. When, for example, I pay an airline to carry me expeditiously to the West Coast and they summarily overbook me out of a seat, my irritation is utterly justified as we normally use that term. I may even be able to skillfully leverage my irritation to manipulate a better outcome, to cajole, threaten, or otherwise make things go my way. And sometimes too, perhaps much of the time, it makes pragmatic sense to shape our language and reactions so that students are more likely to choose the paths that we have selected for them.

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But when they don’t follow orders, when they blow past deadlines, arrive late, or insist on repeatedly submitting 200 rather than 500 words, I need not take it personally. In doing what they wish to do they are, in fact, expressing a quintessentially human capriciousness that is, if not to be celebrated, then to be respected. And I can respect their autonomy best simply by letting them face the consequences of whatever path they have chosen rather than taking it personally.

Certainly, I am a much happier person, and probably a better teacher, when I am able to take responsibility for my irritation at their apparent defiance. And from this wider perspective it can even be kind of amusing when they ignore my carefully prepared instructions and do whatever they felt like doing in the first place. It is, I think, a microcosm of what life “does to me” all the time. Just as, despite our frantic best efforts, our dogs die and our beds refuse to stay made, I cannot bend reality to my will, no matter how I may wail and stamp my feet. But it is perhaps also quintessentially human of me that I reserve the right to moan and groan in protest from time to time nonetheless.

How the ukulele makes me a better teacher

I play the uke almost every day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes, into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is sweet and silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps make me a better teacher.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, one of those learners who operates as if ability were a set part of identity — natural talent — rather than a new friend to be welcomed in and nurtured over time. For such people, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For us — and there are lots and lots of us in academe — there is little joy in casual amateurism. If your ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note of the novice, then why pursue new activities for fun? And remaining so safely competent, we can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. Each day the uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, but to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.

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And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not, and cannot, precisely be the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others better at everything I do than I am, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder to face that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point is not for one to be the best at every activity one deigns to undertake. Nor should it be for our students.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and I have the uke to thank for the insight. In some sense I now engage in healthy magical thinking. I make the commitment to repetition that learning the uke requires. I pick it up each day as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement, or fantasize either about how I will or will never be a virtuoso. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it, trusting, in the background, that the spirit of repetition will carry me through. My real success, then, is in developing a kind of “grit,” much more than becoming a great musician. It is not, in fact, so different from how I go about cleaning my house, maintaining my bicycles, or writing this blog.

I do get better at it, of course, but my improvement is more a byproduct of the mundane habit than the goal. I am not, then, that person who aspires to be good at the uke but simply one with a daily habit that involves this little guy. And it impacts my teaching. These days I focus much more on encouraging my students to develop unsexy, repetitious practices than on fanning the flames of their incipient and erratic brilliance. Some would say that the point is to see life as a marathon and not a sprint, and that is part of it. But for me life has become not even a marathon but a kind of meandering walk in which it is the rhythm of both the steps and stops — and not whether one runs or crawls or even “finishes” — that count. If there is a finish line, then I do not think much about it. The joy these days is in the journey but in the “failed” parts of the journey just as much as the successful ones.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a a rangy, craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes followed by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and tenacity were somehow spellbinding. I came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of how to persevere. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good — and for teachers there is tons of such rhetoric — but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but it is with both admiration and gratitude that I remember him now.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.

Beyond (merely) mindful teaching

I hesitated when I first chose “mindful college teaching” as the subhead for this blog. On the one hand, it’s a great virtue of Buddhism that many of its most powerful insights can serve people of myriad spiritual, cultural and temperamental leanings. On the other hand, though, is the sense that terms like “mindfulness” pale and weaken when applied to every imaginable situation, much as “addiction” has lost force over the years. It may be useful sometimes to describe people as addicted to love, failure, and shopping, as well as to nicotine and OxyContin, but the term loses some diagnostic specificity and therapeutic power when applied so broadly.

Similarly, it has proved irresistible to describe nearly any effort to focus or pay attention as an exercise in Buddhist mindfulness. There is mindful dieting, mindful parenting, mindful weightlifting, mindful communication, mindfulness for stress relief and even, of course, mindful college teaching. Probably each of these applications is more or less salubrious. Certainly, I have found lots of mindfulness self-help books to be insightful and helpful. I wonder, though, about the ultimate impact of so many different mindfulness books ostensibly applicable to subjects of every shape and size. My concern is partly about missing the point and has been well illustrated for me by tussles I’ve had with my backyard bushes.

When I moved into my century-old house seven years ago, I inherited a yard that was some combination of a Tudor garden and Jurassic Park. What was, I think, originally supposed to be a sort of hedgerow around the periphery had long since become a jungle thicket, choking out the yard’s open center and pushing upwards with such tenacity that many of the so-called bushes could pass for spindly trees. Taking control of the situation — which is, when I think about it, exactly the wrong way for me to describe my haphazard process — has taken years of unceremonious lopping, selective pruning, and a tenacity that ebbs and flows. Still, I have reclaimed some open yard space, and am now mostly in maintenance mode.

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What I had not understood when I began, though, was that bushes are not discrete, individual, well contained entities — though they appear to be so in carefully groomed yards and when they’re bundled neatly for sale at garden nurseries. As I learned from the green shoots venturing well outside the boundaries I had arbitrarily settled upon, some bushes are more like viruses or mushrooms or schools of fish in that their identity is communal, diffuse, and unbounded. It’s as if my bushes, having tasted the frenzy of unrestrained growth, are permanently feral. At any moment, I can still find dozens of new tendrils pushing up through the earth like a zombie’s fingers. While it’s an impressive demonstration of pure life force, it’s also unnerving, as it was when an ivy vine slithered and nosed its way under a window frame and into my living room in the snowy dead of winter.

But I digress. My point is that while the swamp of mindfulness-in-context material — including my own “mindful college teaching” blog — may be useful, one risks becoming forever caught up in addressing only the scattered symptoms of an unfocused life and consciousness, while ignoring the heart of the matter. For several years, I just mowed over my bushes’ insistent new growth, even after I’d recognized my bandaid approach to the problem. It was so temptingly easy to merely push my mower along and make these visual reminders disappear for a while — usually just a few days — but overwhelming to face the full extent of a challenge (this yard! this old house! these bills! this job!) that I would never, could never, really control.

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In short, my yard work, like many so many of my “life changes,” was mostly cosmetic, often superficially focused on the most unsightly, or easily addressed, issues rather than the most important ones. Like the guy searching for his lost car keys under the street lamp simply because the light is better there, I was busily, sometimes comically, missing the point. What I wonder, then, is if it may be too easy to get distracted by the idea of mindfulness in this or that particular, sometimes superficial, context such that the truly awesome power and life-altering efficacy of mindfulness is bypassed. I feel a bit guilty as I write this because mindfulness is such a hot topic I’ve been able to exploit the term to attract people to my work. But perhaps it’s not as crassly self-serving as it sounds. As I’ve also acknowledged from the beginning, this blog, the Virtual Pedagogue, is only sort of about college teaching.

In the end, I am quite happy to lure people into the dark thicket where, it seems, there is only one question to be asked, the question that most of us, simply by virtue of being frightened, distractable, voracious humans, try so hard to avoid. It’s the Buddha’s question, of course, and that of many other psychological/spiritual explorers, and it has both everything and nothing to do with teaching, trimming bushes, or elaborate meditation practices. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we come to this big question by way of teaching or praying or tending the garden, so long as we come to it somehow. What a tragedy, though, if we become so enamored of and distracted by the “little” practices of mindfulness that we overlook the deeply transformative question that stands just behind them, right under our very noses.