Thursday, September 06, 2007

The One That Got Away

So first of all, what I chose to do in my class as a follow-up to the whole "gross" debacle, was to begin by talking a bit about heteronormativity and about how all of our responses are to some extent emergent from the fact that we live in a heteronormative culture, however we might resist certain beliefs that emerge from that. And so I mentioned words that we might use for things that make us uncomfortable - "gross," "disgusting," "wrong," "unnatural," and "deviant," to name a few - and I talked about the fact that my goal in the course is that when we have those reactions that we just ask the question why. Because what we're really saying is "I'm uncomfortable," or "I don't agree with x," when we use those words. Now, we may have a good justification for being uncomfortable or for disagreeing. But before we speak, we should tack on the "because." We should try to come up with a non-solipsistic reason for our responses. In other words, it's not good enough to say "It's gross because it's wrong." Instead, we should think about how our reactions emerge from our particular positions in culture. Because, and I really do believe this, I don't think that all of our views on such things will change as a result of this course. We might go out of the course still feeling that two guys kissing is gross, or that it's "wrong" for people not to identify as the biological sex into which they were born. But if we do have that feeling, we should realize why we feel that way. We should come out of the course aware if not dramatically changed.

What I didn't say in class is that, for me, it's that awareness that leads to change, ultimately, and I don't necessarily believe that I can change people in one 16 week semester, and so it's not really on my agenda to do so. I just want them to see more broadly, if that makes sense, even if they believe exactly what they believed coming in. I just want them to recognize belief as belief, and not as "truth" that applies to all people. From that comes real change. Not from me lecturing them about what they "should" believe.

What is interesting is that the student who inspired this little lesson wasn't in class - because this student chose to drop the course. Now, on the one hand, I think that this is probably for the best, for the student, and for the dynamic of the class as a whole. If one is so uncomfortable that one can't engage with the material, then it's really difficult to learn. And I want my students - all of them - to learn something. And if one student can't table his/her biases for the moment in order to engage, then the likely outcome is that the class dynamic will be affected in such a way that other students will have difficulty engaging as well. At the same time, though, I wish that this student had been able to stick it out and to allow for discomfort enough to at least try to engage. I don't want this student to feel disrespected by the response that I gave in class to the initial comment, or to other comments that I'd made to the student about previous reactions that the student had. I don't think I was disrespectful - I think that my expectations were very clear from the outset for what was appropriate to the course - but I don't like the idea that the student might have felt that even with that being the case. And so this student, as much as it's probably good that this student made the decision to drop, is in some ways "the one that got away."

I don't know. I feel like I'm in such muddy territory with this course. On the one hand, I'm teaching a course that is really out there for my institution. (Which, I should say, is why many students said that they chose to take it - because there was no other course like it.) On the other, I'm not entirely secure with the fact that I'm the person teaching this course. That insecurity has to do with identity politics shit that I ultimately think is fucked up. (I was introduced to all of the concepts/texts I'm teaching by people who were lesbian/gay, and as I'm not, I often feel like I don't have the "right" to be teaching this stuff, even if intellectually I think that such a feeling is totally dumb.) I'm qualified to teach this course, and on top of being qualified I think that I probably am the best person to be doing it in part because I'm not in a marginalized identity group as I teach it, which I think means that the course can be less threatening than it might be were I on some sort of soap-box (or perceived to be on such a soap-box) "promoting" things that make the more conservative students uncomfortable.

One thing I will say is this: I know that the students who remain have thought about things that they've never thought about before, and that's down to what I've done in developing this course. And that's fucking exciting. I feel the energy the minute that I walk into the room. Students I don't know from previous courses have made a point of stopping to chat with me about ideas and insights that they've had, even though we're only at the start of the semester. And in reading their weekly reactions (a new assignment for me, which I see as a way for me to track their ideas and their progress, kind of a conversation between me and them), I see that even the ones who've not approached me directly are thinking - and thinking hard. I've never felt this so much in my four years here. And I'm pushing myself in new directions through this course, and I feel like that's contributing to the energy I'm feeling both in it and out of it, too. That energy carries over into the class that I teach directly after, something I've taught a bunch of times and had been feeling a bit unenthusiastic about, and I feel like I'm a better teacher in there because of the experiment with the earlier class.

I know I'm being vague in the posts about this, and part of that is because I really don't want to get into specifics that might compromise this class as a safe space for my students. I don't want to unconsciously say something that might compromise the integrity of the course as a place where it's ok to be uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

I'll conclude with one last thing: as much as I'm challenged in my particular institutional setting in offering such a course - because of the conservatism, because it really is a radical sort of course to be teaching within the curriculum here even though such courses have existed in other places for at least the past 20 years - this is one of the most rewarding things about teaching at my institution. As I look ahead to the posting of the job list this year, I realize that the work that I'm doing here is really significant and important work, and I realize that I couldn't do this kind of work at a less conservative university, at a different kind of university, not really. I'm not saying that I wouldn't reach individual students in a similar way, but I think that there is something inherently valuable about teaching at an institution that attracts a large number of students who are in the first generation to attend college in their family, about teaching at an institution in which students are generally quite sheltered in their view of the world. These students need what I do here in a way that students at other types of institutions just don't. They need it precisely because the stuff that I teach them is like stuff from outer space in terms of how they react to it according to their prior experience.

Again, I'm not saying that I wouldn't open minds or change perspectives at another type of institution (like a SLAC or an R1) or at an institution in another part of the country (the Northeast, the West Coast), but the work that I would do in those sorts of institutions wouldn't, as far as I can tell, make as big of an impact, ultimately. People will always want to teach at those kinds of institutions in those sorts of locations. People who are really smart and open-minded and engaging, people who come from backgrounds that would think that what I'm doing here isn't all that big of a deal. The thing that makes me particularly suited to my current institution is that I come from the same place that my students come from, and so I get their resistance, rather than resenting it. I get what a big fucking deal it is to resist all of one's acculturation in a working-class, socially and culturally quite conservative upbringing to think something new. I understand what a big fucking deal it is to think in ways that oppose one's family and friends and coworkers. And I value how hard it is to change given those constraints. I doubt that a lot of people I know from grad school or from other networks within this profession would have a clue how hard that is. And that's not to diss my friends/colleagues. It's just that they haven't been through it, and so were they to end up at a place like my institution, they would see the students as "broken" in a way that I don't, precisely because I was that student. Sure, I was "smart," and "motivated" or whatever, but the bottom line is that I was very resistant to certain ideas because they challenged everything that I had been raised to believe. It's hard fucking work to move out of that, to open oneself to moving out of that. And yes, I expect my students to do that work. But I know that it's harder for them than it is for students from different backgrounds. They don't, ultimately, expect education to change them. They don't, ultimately, expect that a college education is going to make them a different person. Students from other upbringings? I think that they have a much clearer sense of the fact that this is what education does.

And having that kind of audience does matter to me, even if it means that I'm not at a "top" institution in my field. Or even a "better" institution than the one I'm at. You know, one thing that's liberating about being in English with its glutted market, is that one's institution doesn't really matter all that much in terms of prestige. I mean, it matters - obviously people at fancy places will get more props than I'll ever get - but in some ways because the market is so glutted one's work really does matter more than one's placement. If you are "known" in your field - through publication, through one's service in professional organizations - people do respect you, whether you're at Harvard or whether you're at some regional comprehensive somewhere. Now, it's true that one has more time to make a name for oneself at a research university, but if one manages to do awesome research (and I'm not saying that I have, really, but I have done a lot for my type of institution and I am "recognized" as doing good work, whatever my institutional affiliation) at whatever kind of institution, that is what makes one's reputation. We don't, in English, really need the kind of resources that people in other disciplines need, and so institution itself isn't all. That is what I've thought a lot about since getting the book contract, actually. I matter to the people to whom I want to matter, and I really don't need more resources to do what I want to do. I have respect in this profession, regardless of location. Am I a superstar? No. But I'm doing good work, and people recognize that fact, even those at my grad institution who think that I could do "better," and even those I know in other disciplines who think that I'm too good for the job that I have. I suppose I include this last bit mostly for the grad students who read me who will be going on the job market this year. Getting a job at an institution like mine and not in a super-desirable location is not a death sentence, or it doesn't have to be. In fact, it can be really, really rewarding.


Neophyte said...

De-lurking to offer applause for your taking part in the particular brand of resistance that resembles nothing so much as banging one's head against a wall. And doing so thoughtfully, and to good pedagogical effect. It sounds frightening, and difficult, and wonderful. I wish for nothing more than one day to have the guts and emotional (and pedagogical) wherewithal to do it myself.

Go you. (And yes, it is good work, and don't ever forget that for a second.)

Hilaire said...

Damn, this was an amazing post. And it really read to me like the germ of an article. Just sayin'. :)

Kjerstin said...

One of my high school teacers fooled us all by saying that "thinking only hurts at the beginning". By the time we had discovered that he lied, and that thinking never gets easy, it was too late - we were hooked.

Right now, in my part of the world, there is a gender neutral marriage bill waiting to be voted over by the parliament. It's been somewhat disheartening to follow the public debate and see how often the "it's wrong because it's gross" argument appears. All in all, I think the work you do, can't be overrated. I've experienced this energy you talk about from a student's point of view. Thanks for reminding me :-)

Kate said...

This is such a lovely post. I hope you tack it on your wall so you remember your fantastic contributions to your school all year long.

I'm at a fairly "elite" school right now, but next year will be at a public R1 university where there will be a lot of students like the ones you are describing. Your post only makes me more excited to get over there.

Oso Raro said...

This post reminds me of my latest (except u r more coherent here LOL), about the tensions between my temporary gig at Pretigious Lil' College and Cold City U. The tension between the necessary, important work and the prestige, the money, the glamour.

For one, I think you handled the "gross" thing pretty well. There is that veil when the prof is LGBTQ that drives that commentary underground (the expected response from the acronym set: a head swivel and a "Say What?!"), but doesn't actually eliminate it, which sometimes is even more icky.

We stretch, we bend, we move, we flow. I think the most important part is empathy. I have a particular subject position, but have taught intellectual subjects apart from that "experience" (paging Joan Scott) in ways that have attempted to communicate the empathetic (as opposed to the purportedly transparent), and feel I have been relatively successful, altho students always want (or resist) the native informant, so there is no real winning, just keeping on.

Drop me a line if you want to communicate on all this. I have a feeling we're teaching the same things this semester.

amuffins said...

This is a really nice thing to hear from a full-time professor, since I feel like my colleagues would generally be more derogatory toward a conservative audience and might assume a student must just be stupid and unteachable if he made a comment like that. Actually, I'm sure some of my professors at gradschool believe they would be lynched by ravenous, evangelical Christian mobs if they ever set foot west of the Hudson River! I imagine I have a similar demographic as you (aside from geographical influences), and it is a unique but remarkable audience to teach to. Since most of my students are the first generation in their families to attend college, a lot of them grew up being told that a degree would be a beneficial way to get a better job and make more money (nothing wrong with that, but I don't think they show up the first day to my class expecting anything *more* than that from college). But this is just a different starting point than other college students, and so, I agree with you that it's such a vital and fulfilling role to expose this audience to the huge spectrum of ideas that they haven't yet encountered. I can see what you mean that it is really hard to approach this audience with the class you are doing, but I think their development will be far more remarkable, since they are less likely to take if for granted when college turns out to be transforming and liberating and thought-provoking (which I think I did take for granted at my liberal arts alma mater). Yeah, you might not completely convert them, but I do think you are changing their lives in ways that they might not even realize until many years down the road. But definitely with this "gross" comment, you planted the seed, and you clearly have a very receptive audience.

Horace said...

Great Post, Dr. C, and a lot of good stuff for me to chew on as I approach the naughty bits coming up in my semester.

helenesch said...

Yeah--wonderful post. It sounds like you handled this really well! I feel much the same way that you do about the prestige/respect thing within my discipline. I feel well-respected by the people who matter to me, even if these aren't the bigwigs in my discipline (it would be hard to be a feminist philosopher and get much genuine respect from the philosophical bigwigs, I think). And getting students to think about things that matter--and really think about them, in a way that unsettles their worldview--really matters to me, too. I have few illusions about the impact of my written work (maybe I'm too cynical about this), but I know that I make a difference in the lives of my students. And that is rewarding to me in a way that the other stuff isn't.