Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rancière's questionnaire

In my last post about education, I said I wanted to ask my students why they're in college. I intended only to ask my freshmen and to lead from that to a discussion of intellectual honesty, as there's been an outbreak of plagiarism in that class. But I ended up asking all of my students yesterday, using the prompt: "I am in college in order to ______________." The overwhelming answer was "to get a job." Other answers included, "to get the piece of paper"; "to find a husband"; "to make a stable life for myself"; "to appease my parents"; "I don't want to be here"; "to learn about the universe . . . student debt is putting my life into a box," and so forth. While completing a sentence like this only tells me so much--my students are, after all, interesting, talented people--I was struck by the level of instrumentality in their answers. One of my freshmen erupted with a counter-argument that only proved the point he was arguing against: "Everyone here has it wrong," he declaimed. "You don't need to go to college to get a good job--my father has one--nor do you need money to be happy." I was hoping for the idealistic follow-up, "but you go to school for other reasons."  That was not forthcoming. "It's the economy, stupid," I could hear someone stage-whisper to me, and there's no time or money for mental luxury.

Rancière writes about people who don't think they're worthy of knowledge, which reminds me that Booker T. Washington thought nothing so sad as a poor black person studying French. The sense that we ought to do something practical is very strong in my students, and that "ought to" includes job, financial security, and--in many cases--seemingly little else. There was an allusion in one student's response to courses that "aren't necessary," with a smiley face after it, by which I gathered that s/he considers Freshman Composition to be an unnecessary course. This belief seems to me wrong in two very different ways. First, if you want a job, English 100 will provide you the skills to communicate and do the job that's out there, if there is one in this "post-employment economy." It will help you go through the interviews, organize your thoughts, analyze data, and it will even help you write memos, the coin of our realm if there ever was one. If you need to invent your own job--create a website to offer services, for example--this course will help you do that, even if each assigned essay does not. If you need funding for your website, you'll have to write grant proposals. And second, if we want to have any pleasure in this life, thinking is surely primary among them, as we spend more time with our thoughts than with anything, or anyone, else. I look at their tired faces and realize that pleasure is far from their minds. The frequent in-class exercise, geared toward activity and, yes, fun, seems a blip in their otherwise grim days of attending classes, working a job or two, and then getting up to do it again.

Getting pedantic about joy seems backwards, too. But Rancière's "emancipation" narrative requires a field of possibility before it can take place, before "stultification" cedes to movement and ignorance to learning. This is what is at stake in Rancière, the how-to of teaching someone to teach herself. His notion that the teacher should also be ignorant seems helpful in some classrooms, if not others (Calculus, anyone?). But the university system enforces hierarchies, just as it currently enforces the ideology of practicality. That my department is cutting poetry courses only makes us complicit in this reduction to the god of non-fiction that seems to be occurring more generally in literary studies. Give them facts, contemporary Gradgrinds ordain. The playfulness of language is an ornament. Insofar as we listen, it's to poetry that tries hard to make something happen. That's good, but surely not all there is. Sometimes something has happened: a death, a loss, a work of art. Our responses to those stimuli need time, too.

And time is the biggest problem. My students don't have it. What they have of it they spend trying desperately to relax, by way of iPods and iPads and iPhones (the I might seem lyrical if it did not encourage passivity). These are instruments of liberation, too, with immediate access to knowledge--Google as godsend--but they aren't often enough used as such. "I'm looking something up," is a rare moment in my classroom, when I chide a student for appearing to send a text message. As a teacher, I can offer students 50 minutes or an hour of creative time, but I cannot give them more time than that. Once they leave the classroom, they're back in the world where what matters is the "piece of paper," as one student put it. I'm tempted to ask, "what else can you do with a piece of paper?" Here's a xeroxed diploma, now write or draw all over it!

The head of my son's school for dyslexic kids, Paul Singer, recently wrote an essay in the Huffington Post about making learning "relevant" to children. He added, "The great educational philosopher John Dewey believed that the school curriculum should grow out of the needs and interests of the learner." This may work best when college students don't have such fixed notions of what their "needs" are. When "needs" revolve around stability, income, job, and nothing else (though one student wrote that he "just wants to study music," with the "just" hanging out there to dry). I can't tell them they don't need to pay off their student loans, don't need to be employed, don't need to get that degree as a step along the way to adulthood, but perhaps I can suggest that there are adventures to be had beyond the job, that there are forms of insecurity to court, too, those that are not financial but artistic. It's a hard sell, I know.

That metaphor (that of "the hard sell") gives away the store, doesn't it?


My son's school is Assets in Honolulu.  Have a look at their website. 

Eric Parker, via facebook, sends a good link for students to consider, both in terms of job prospects and the relevance of their liberal arts courses.

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