Friday, October 26, 2007

School is for suckers.

I think it must be the mid-to-late semester funk, but almost everything about the entire higher educational apparatus seems absurd, bogus, and fraudulent to me--everything except for summer vacation. Let me enumerate the reasons why this cannot be true:
  • people everywhere, women especially, actually have their lives improved when they are more educated--more economic power, more familial power, etc.
  • the signifier of the college degree still matters--it confers cultural capital, gets people in the door for their first jobs, gets them pay raises, etc.
  • a place in the capitalist world that isn't, at least not for the very moment, about making money, that is about creating what might be called a "life of the mind," is valuable.
  • education changes--can change--how you look at things, analyze problems, act in the world, for the better. Can change.

And yet . . . as the historian and I tried to engage with students on the basis of three texts we were all supposed to have prepared to discuss--the Preface to the original edition of Our Bodies, Our Selves, a piece from Susan Brownmiller's "The Enemy Within," and a piece by Frances M. Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”--the miasma of uselessness set in. It's so easy to believe that no one gives a rat's ass about any of it when the students appear to be waiting you out, waiting for the time to be up. To be fair: they're preparing writing portfolios, they're writing a midterm essay, they work, they have lives, they have other classes . . . and yet the life of the mind seemed like a happy happy dream in that classroom yesterday. Although, and again to be fair, they had spent a noisy and productive half hour prior to that conversation developing the ideas for their collaborative proposals.

A possibly soul-sapping non-discussion like that can make you extrapolate that sense of uselessness to all your other academic endeavors. That piece you're writing with a colleague that you'd like to transform into a webtext and submit to KAIROS? Why bother? Who will read it anyway, and what will it matter? The ways you know you'd like to improve your online courses? Are those students even bothering to click on the links? Who can tell? The policy committees (note the plural! how did this happen? HOW?) you're on, the labor you've expended in writing stuff like that, policies and procedures that are just going to turn into more bureaucratic practices that everyone's going to hate--why did you choose to spend your precious breath on that?

In class yesterday, I asked why the women's movements in America all included a substantial amount of advocacy for women's health issues. One student, a cosmetology student, raised her hand and said, "Because taking care of your health makes you feel more confident." She seemed a little sheepish, but she had in fact read, and had, in fact, understood a major point that the Boston Women's Health Collective made:

For us, body education is core education. Our bodies are the physical bases from which we move out into the world; ignorance, uncertainty — even, at worst, shame — about our physical selves create in us an alienation from ourselves that keeps us from being the whole people that we could be. . . . Learning to understand, accept, and be responsible for our physical selves, we are freed of some of these preoccupations and can start to use our untapped energies. Our image of ourselves is on a firmer base, we can be better friends and better lovers, better people, more self-confident, more autonomous, stronger and more whole.

It's what I'm holding onto today--that students don't always reveal what they're thinking or learning, that talking or trying to talk about whatever--how writing works in the world, what Our Bodies, Our Selves meant to me when I was a young woman, what is the radical potential of texts--might actually mean something to someone. Might make a difference. How I do my job might possibly make a difference to someone.


  1. This is a great post, and it helps me think about some of the frustration I've been feeling lately. I want to, as you say, "be fair" to students. But sometimes I want to say "buck up," this is college! But I also believe that students' mental work isn't always visible.

    I guess I feel like some of my students have a deep, profound apathy about learning. It's an apathy that took root in middle school or high school and continues into college. They need to be sold on the very idea that ideas matter.

    Must think more on this, but I want to end by saying that I'm sure your students appreciate you more than you realize. My sense is that you're much more flexible and humane in your approach. Your responsive. I have The Plan, and The Plan does not change.

  2. It does me good to know we are all feeling this way. I almost gave up before class yesterday, but I'm glad I didn't. Instead, I made them put their chairs in a circle. And, behold, students who never speak in class actually spoke. It helped that many in the class had not shown up. We were a small circle. But I was happy that they actually talked. So I am bolstered, at least momentarily.
    And I agree with what you say. We can't see that work that is going on. Oftentimes they don't even see it until much, much later.
    I'm not sure what's up this semester, but I feel much, much more tired than usual. More worn out at this point.
    Teaching is hard work, for many reasons, but I think the most hidden reason is that we spend a lot of mental and emotional energy worrying about whether or not our students are getting it or if we are teaching well or correctly. It's exhausting.
    And I second MB, your students appreciate you, even if they don't know it yet.

  3. I've got some good pieces about this. I've supplied one to the boxes. I have more. Ira Shor, anyone?

  4. Have to say I've also been feeling like all this doesn't really matter too. Certainly agree that the paper with a "colleague" is probably a waste--what possible impact do we hope to have? Sorry, I'm not helping here am I?

    In a more positive light, I do absolutely think student learning is not always visible and that, possibly, learning moments are yet to be constructed of the stuff we give them.

    Just the other day a student emailed me (the subject was "not very important") to tell me how a tv show (one of those CSIs or murder mysteries) had started with the same G.K. Chesterton quote on fairy tales which begins Gaiman's amazing children's novel, Coraline: "Fairy Tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

    I honestly didn't think this particular student was that engaged but she remembered the quote, was excited to make the connection, and even emailed me a message that was much more important than her subject line indicated.

  5. Yup, it's midsemester malaise. And by the way, that first Our Bodies changed my life. Of course, much of that learning didn't actually take hold until years later, which may be Dr. Write's point...

  6. hmmm. everything important about humanities education seems to argue for patience and for the long view (changing students ideas, coming to our own conclusions in front of the classroom or in publication), but everything about education administration seems to be geared to the now (student evaluations, faculty reviews, grading).



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