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Friday, December 10, 2004

Being a Teacher

Things wrapped up for the semester this week at Arkansas State University: last day of classes, review sessions, etc. Finals are going on now; then grading, and then the Christmas break. The halls will fall quiet, for a while at least. We'll be leaving for a couple of weeks to spend the Christmas and New Year's holidays with family and friends in Michigan and Canada, so now is the last chance to get things done that have been put off all semester. And it's a good time to think about my job, too.

On Tuesday the faculty of my department gathered at a local Italian restaurant for our annual end-of-the-semester Christmas dinner. I suppose it would fulfill certain expectations were I to go on to list a host of drunken embarrassments and humiliations which occurred, but I can't, because there weren't any. Partly because Craighead County is dry, of course, and so the only alcohol consumed that night was that which several participants brought themselves; but even if the wine had been flowing, I doubt there would have been any scandals. Ours is not an especially interactive or combative department; most of us are content to tend to our own little corners of the curriculum, and have few dreams (or illusions, as the case may be) about pulling off anything transformative or radical, at least not insofar as the institution itself in concerned. The upside to this is that no one, so far as I can tell, is fearful of having their oxes gored by any of their fellow faculty, which makes for many easy acquaintanceships, and even a few deep friendships, between us. And that was much on display last Tuesday: everyone got along and had a good time. Our dean and associate dean joined us, and there was much loud complaining about the administration, and our old chair and resident showman handed out some joke gifts (I received a bottle of aspirin, to help me cope with the headache which our department's setbacks and struggles over the last year or so have caused me in particular), and there was a lot of trading and taking of photographs, and there were hugs and holiday wishes. Melissa and I had a wonderful time. Fact is, this is a pretty good group of people I get to work with here at Arkansas State, and I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Of course, we're all elitists here: how could we not be? As John Holbo explained, "academia is aristocratic....if you don't think some beliefs are better than others, why would you ever expend time and money to change anyone's beliefs by sitting them in a classroom?" John makes this point, which has been made many times before, as part of a much larger argument about conservatives and liberals in the academy; an important discussion (and no one has written on the subject more intelligently or with greater thoroughness than John, though Timothy Burke comes close), but not one--as John and Tim would probably both quickly admit--that has much salience outside the sort of academic environments wherein the elitism of the professoriate is sufficiently settled and empowered (financially, socially, and structurally) so as to make arguments over the internal or ideological distribution of that elitism worth having. The problem of elite groupthink, in other words, only arises when elite groups have enjoyed plenty of time and space to generate their own parameters of thought. That's not something which the faculty of Arkansas State University, or indeed the faculty of probably more than half of all universities and colleges in America, have experienced, at least not lately if ever. As far as the liberal/conservative thing goes, I think it's probably fair to say that most of my colleagues are more left-leaning than otherwise, but in only a couple of instances do I have any actual evidence of this. We talk politics with each other and our students, but for the most part we don't talk partisanly, and we certainly don't connect whatever partisanship may exist, so far as I know, to how we understand our pedagogical role here. I mean, it's easy to imagine that we do so, if only privately: that we see ourselves as the liberal Aufklärer of the local, benighted and provincial populace. But the project of enlightenment, even if we wish to assume that such is the secret program of every and all academics everywhere (which it isn't), nonetheless has certain financial and social structural requirements, or at least it does insofar as we academics, like anyone else who in possession of a vocation, perform our roles in accordance with practices and norms inculcated into us by years of training and which were shaped by a long and continuing history of disciplinary specialization and legitimation. In other words, there are practical limits to how we can do what we are supposed; if there is an elite political project contained in our job performance, it's not likely to be especially discernible if we don't have the power to establish the terms of our own intellectual work.

Still...we're elitists, because of the very nature of our work. As I put it in another post, anyone who has been through graduate school and sought a position in academia "has been highly educated, socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways, and schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, vocational, guild-protected elite." This isn't about politics, or at least it isn't necessarily about politics; it's about assuming, through one's daily habits and casual talk, that dealing with abstract data, methodologies, ideas and arguments--the life of the mind, in other words--is an exercise worthy of institutional support and economic remuneration. In the post I just linked to, my concern was with the fact that being an academic means being, in a sense, "upper-class" in both personal expectation and popular reputation, despite the fact that our incomes--at least, again, at likely a large majority of all the colleges and universities in America--don't really make such a lifestyle an option. There's an internal aspect to that same disconnect which so many of us college and university teachers have experienced at one point or another, if not continually. A meeting is called; the administration's representative arrives; budget cuts are announced; new accounting procedures are explained. The bottom line? You don't need any additional faculty/teaching assistants/research and travel money/classrooms/whatever, is the implied message; what you need to do is maximize what you already have! But the presumptions of maximization are exactly those which our profession--meaning, very specifically, the faculty which this university hired, the ones listening with inarticulate frustration to this message--was not supposed to operate in accordance with. Why say what you're doing (and obviously I'm referring vaguely to my own situation, so perhaps I should just drop the vagueness) is "providing a political science major" when the process by which the political science discipline has evolved and is taught is not, in fact, your baseline assumption? To the accountants in the administration, that baseline may well reflect an inefficient and even astonishingly aristocratic presumption about how knowledge is produced and conveyed; and truth be told, they're right. It is a rather elite thing to say that, no, this particular form of knowledge (say, a comparison of Kantian and Lockean social contract theories) actually isn't compatible with an arrangement wherein, for example, 500+ students are taught the same material daily (in classes of 200 students or more) by one professor who has them fill out bubble sheets for their midterm exam. Innovative methodologies and transformative technologies (which are really the same thing, when you get right down to it) are of limited application. On the contrary, some subject matters require (relatively) small classes with (relatively) high levels of writing and reading, which means a lot of one-on-one time: for better or worse, that's the way the field is constituted. One might be forgiven for thinking that--given the sort of resources which such a field of teaching involves, and the costs (which really aren't that great, but aren't insigificant either) it would generate--such knowledge might really be the sort of thing which, well, only upper-class students could bother to learn, much less afford. And yet here we are, serving the students of Northeastern Arkansas, not exactly an elite locale. You begin to see the multifacetedness of the problem.

A long time ago, when I was newer to Arkansas, I wrote somewhat depressingly about this same set of issues, framing them around a rather tired metropolitan/provincial dichotomy. I don't feel that way anymore, partly because I've come to a greater appreciation of populism, and the surprising ways in which this university, and all us elites who inhabit it, can connect in a very fundamental way to the students who come here. Of course, just because my appreciation of what I can do has deepened doesn't mean I do it as well as I might; there is always room for improvement, and there is always a place for (some) financial and social critique of our practices and norms. But that doesn't mean that I'm at peace with what others think is required of us either. It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where "education" in the research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse. Still, I hope to be able to find my way inside, whether here or elsewhere, and discover a more-or-less permanent niche, so I can continue to do some good and maybe even shore up, to whatever extent I'm able, the social and financial structures which make possible the teaching of whatever small corner of the discipline I get to work in. I love teaching; I love talking to students about their papers, leading them through discussions, reading their feedback and conducting review sessions and, yes, "enlightening" them, if only a little bit. We all love that, and maybe we even love the disconnect, the "elitism" which comes with it, even when it's uncomfortable and puts our situation under the microscope. We even love having dinner together, and swapping stories about it all. I realize there are plenty of disfunctional, even hateful, faculties out there: but then maybe, here at Arkansas State, in not having the luxury of allowing our little elite group to forget just how tenuous and strained an endeavor it really is, being a teacher in this place and at this time, we don't ever get around to developing any groupthink problems. Not that I expect teachers at more truly elite institutions would choose to give our unintentional "solution" a whirl, but if they'd like to give up half their endowment to us, so they can see what effect scarcity might have internal departmental politics, I'm sure we'd all be happy to help them out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Russell. Really nice, original post on a subject that everybody else has beaten to death. (I like Holbo, but his posts are just too damn long.) 

Posted by laura