Thought and Theory: A Teaching and Learning Blog
(This blog is continually up-dated, but is based on an interview with Lisa Devries originally published in Between the Lines)
|Q - How long have you been teaching at McMaster?|
|A - I started at McMaster in the summer of 1988....and it shows.|
|Q - Where were you before that? (i.e. studying and/or teaching)|
A - Where is one at any time? And is one the same person at that other time? But to answer your question, rather than trying to theorize it....before coming to McMaster I had spent two years as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Yale University. Those were two very intense years for me (Yale was then and still is a a real brain-eating place), a time when I had the unimaginable luxury of throwing myself into philosophy and critical theory, reading everything I could get my hands on, sketching out projects on the illustrations of William Blake as well as on German philosophy. Before going to Yale I had been Barbara Rooke Fellow in Romantic Literature at Trent University, a one year appointment that was really splendid, in its own way, not least because the fellowship came with a vast furnished apartment at Lady Eaton College, with an entertainment allowance, cable t.v., three meals a day at the college cafeteria, and all the firewood I could burn delivered to my door. After years of being a starving doctoral student living in a little garret above the home of a French professor in London, this was nirvana. I met two of my dearest friends there, including my wife! I had some very good students at Trent who seemed unusually interested in the Continental philosophy I was trying to introduce into the undergraduate literary studies classroom. And I remember really loving the fact that there was an active queer community on campus, so different from the profoundly closeted place that was Western in the 1980s. The fact that the Bata Library was unofficially but widely known on campus as the Steve Biko Memorial Library really impressed me--for a building to have two monikers, one celebrating the gift of a generous and wealthy donor, the other memorializing the violent struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, was to me a small but significant sign of the university's burgeoning commitment to social justice. But I regretted the very old-fashioned and rather paternalistic ways in which the Department of English in particular was run at the time. For example, without my permission, the final grades I had assigned my students were all raised because the administration thought I was too "hard" on my students. I can't imagine a senior administrator acting in such an irresponsible way today, at Trent or at any other Canadian university! The other part of the Rooke fellowship that brought me to Trent was being don to about thirty undergraduate students who lived in the two floors above me in Lady Eaton College. One of the things I learned that year was that I am not cut out to be a don...but that's another story.
Previous to going to Trent I was at the University of Western Ontario doing my PhD on the question of "indeterminacy and displacement in Blake's prophetic texts." My supervisors--such an odd word that, for it hardly captures their importance in my life, then, as now, as mentors, colleagues, and friends--my supervisors said when I finally finished the damn thing that I had written three hundred pages on twelve lines in Blake. Which is true. But in point of fact, Blake was the medium, the occasion, as it were, for me to work through some of the seminal ideas of the work of Jacques Derrida, and to see how these ideas function in the presence of what can seem a very different philosophical tradition, namely German idealism. These are ideas that have played a huge role in how I teach and how I write to this day. But studying Derrida at Western in the 1980's was a very strange thing, since at the time the graduate programme there was ferociously conservative in nature. Even its most junior faculty were very suspicious of Continentally inflected ideas, or at least suspicious of graduate students who had succumbed inexplicably to Contintentally inflected ideas. We were all supposed to be memorizing the works of Northrop Frye, and some of us were; but others were soaking up the searching intelligence that animates books like Derrida's Of Grammatology and Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading, books that made our undergraduate and graduate educations in a certain humanist mode suddenly feel all wrong--like we had been kept from some huge bright world that had been thriving outside of Canada, certainly outside the reach of Mordor, er, Victoria College at the University of Toronto (I can honestly say that Derrida and de Man awoke me from what felt like a dogmatic slumber; they rouse me to this day.). So, with the exception of a few remarkable professors, one hardly spoke aloud about one's research interests in those days for fear of enraging the mandarins who were then running the programme. Critical theory was experienced for me in those years therefore as a kind of conspiracy that graduate students shared mostly among themselves. So there was a kind of weird excitement in that, but also lots of heartbreak. So very different from the richly supportive learning environment that I think characterizes the graduate programme here at Mac.
|Q - What does Jacques Derrida have that Northrop Frye doesn't? (In thirty words or less, of course.)|
A - Thirty words or less! But how could I even begin to speak about two thinkers of this importance so quickly? Let me focus on Frye in a way that is informed throughout by what Derrida has taught me. I want to say right away that Frye's work is richly significant. He played a crucially important role in the history of Canadian letters and in the life of a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university. One of the things we have yet to see, though, are slow readers--to remember something Nietzsche once said--of Frye's work, i.e. readers who put enough confidence in the complexity and critical power of his work to be willing and able to read it resistantly and against the grain, and to read it symptomatically, with an eye to its productive self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses. That is to say, I eagerly await the day that Frye will be taken as seriously as, say, Freud or Hegel. So far as I can determine, rather too much of work being done on him remains hagiographic in nature, and mournful in the sense of being animated mostly by an unexamined desire to preserve and idealize him, to be the first and best at "eating" him up. Derrida speaks interestingly about a phenomenon he calls "archive fever," which is to say a condition characterized by a certain readerly anxiety about the "wrong" people getting their hands and minds on the archive of a thinker's work. I see a certain degree of this malady at work in Frye studies. That's inevitable, I suppose, but I look forward to the time when there isn't so much gate-keeping being done vis-Ã -vis Frye, and many more readers of his work, i.e., thinkers willing to risk interpretations and understandings of his oeuvre that are more palpably dialectical and that are not primarily protective in nature. Like Freud and Hegel, Frye really does deserve such treatment. He deserves to be unravelled since there is so much to gain from being undone.
But it's worth saying here that Frye scholars remainÂ weirdly sensitive to any suggestion that scholarsÂ actuallyÂ readÂ the man's work with care. For example, on a website ostensibly devoted to a public discussion of Frye's ideas, a colleague of over twenty years viscerally reacts to what I wrote on this very blog by denouncing me as being insincere and by characterizing my remarks as so much "narcissistic posturing." I'm not even sure what these things mean in this context, but their ad hominem nature makes it clear that there are Frye scholars who would rather resort to put-downs than actually engage fellow thinkers on the question of Frye's future. Why? Because the mere suggestion that there might be many futures for Frye, rather than one prescribed by a small clan of professors and their former students, and that Frye's work itself calls for a heterogeneous reception and a hospitable understanding going forward, is experienced as a kind of humiliation by some of his readers. My colleague's remarks incited others on the same Frye website: another blogger hints ominously that he knows someone who knows someone who was in one of my graduate classes....and wasn't happy in that class. Gentleman, please! It's so sad to see a website, hosted on a McMaster University server no less, devolve into a forum for such cattiness and name-calling. What is most disappointing is that while Frye's self-proclaimed defenders resort to personalistic attacks of this sort, no scholarship, no critical thinking is happening. Academic discourse instead becomes wholly privatized, in a way the makes it complicit with the larger neoliberal attack on the university. Frye scholarship impoverishes itself by turning, as if by reflex, to the imagined clash of personalities---when what we should be doing is engaging Frye's actual work, debating its weaknesses and strengths, i.e., making substantive arguments in the public realm of ideas. It's important that we break with the notion of Frye as a thinker who is so fragile or vulnerable that he needs to be jealously guarded by scholars who claim to know the one true version of his work. If Frye needs to be protected at all, he needs to be protected from this sort of vanguardism. The great theorist of education, Deborah Britzman (to whose work I return in this blog), notes that the unrelenting "demand to remain loyal" to the idealized other, now lost, "shuts out insight into the conflicts, ambivalences, and desolations that are part of the work of mourning" (Lost Subjects, Contested Objects 133). It strikes me that Frye criticism of a certain idealizing kind might begin with a rigorous examination of what gets disavowed when Frye is treated as the object of undying loyalty. I very much doubt that the man himself ever made such demands of his students, which makes it all the more interesting why it is that his students would demand those demands of him. Here the student makes the teacher into what the teacher was not. That's powerful stuff. One begins to see Britzman's point about the value of bringing a psychoanalytically inflected knowledge to bear on scenes of teaching and learning---especially those scenes in which the actors--students and professors--involved are so confident that education is magically devoid of "conflicts, ambivalences, and desolations." For this reason I admire my Jeffrey Donaldson's poem, "Museum" (published in his 2008 volume of poems, Palilalia), whose speaker encounters the scholar's ghost in a subterranean setting in downtown Toronto. There he petitions the ghost for guidance and clarification while at the same moment acknowledging that Frye is always also "a conjured presence," a spectral figure like Hamlet's father who is hallucinated as much as remembered, an invention of haunted and mournful desires as much as a faithful professorial rendering.
A useful example of what good things can come from bringing more generous, dynamic, and critical understandings to a thinker's ideas would be the relatively recent history of Blake studies. Lots of good work was done in the shadow of Frye's brilliant reading of William Blake as a systematic thinker. But by the 1980's many Blake critics could no longer ignore the remarkable self-differences haunting Blake's will-to-system. It became less and less interesting to read Blake's work backwards, through the lens of the alleged coherence of the later prophetic works. Instead, readers and viewers started to abandon the belief that Blake's work formed a kind of biblically sanctioned well-wrought urn, focussing instead on things like the contradictions that energized the system and that spoke to Blake's struggles as a millennial Christian artist. More and more work was being done, and still is done, devoted to situating Blake historically, parsing his texts for the social energies flowing through them, and thinking about the limits of Blake's politics when, for example, it came to the question of gender. As far as I am concerned, "Blake" came alive at the moment, after a long period in which he was entombed in his own system. I'd love to see something similar happen to Frye. There is some evidence that this work has already begun, for example, in work done by Ross Woodman in his recent book, Sanity, Madness, Transformation: The Psyche of Romanticism, and, in an entirely different register, Nicholas Halmi (see, for example, his recent essay on Fearful Symmetry in Essays in Criticism). And we should not ignore the work of critics like Herman Rappaport, who draws our attention to the possibility of what he calls, no doubt too polemically, "the appallingly illiberal side of Gemeinschaft [community] that Frye managed to entirely overlook in his Anatomy of Criticism." Frye's specific notion of a just community, his conception of the proximities (and distances) that "internally" constitute a civil society, is in my opinion worth looking at very carefully if we are to do justice to his work. This is an effort that would include thinking critically about the nature of justice in his work. I want to believe that in reading Frye critically and contrarily we are in effect being "truer" to his vision. One of the things that Derrida's work has taught me is the value of being at once faithful and faithless to the dead. In truth, they are one and the same gesture, and in that gesture lies something like respect. So it is in the spirit of Derrida's work (especially his essay, "Vacant Chair," which addresses the ways in which academics nervously police and censor the borders of knowledge) that I now include a discussion of the anxious territorialism of Frye scholarship in my core graduate course on the question of the university. The fact that apologia for Frye and scholarship about Frye overlap to the degree that they do in this country partly explains the aggression that I've seen out there whenever an "outsider"--which is to say, someone who has been declared to be an outsider--comes near Frye, dares toÂ respond to his work. Indeed, Frye scholars bring to mind the wisdom of Frye's observation that "the creative instinct has a great deal to do with territorial rights" (The Bush Garden i). Ad hominem attacks on those of us who call for a close and careful reading of Frye's work is one more example, I say to my graduate students, of the privatization of higher education, its devolution into a mere conflict of personalities, its collapse into a war of imagined loyalties or betrayals, when what is most needed is a rigorous and more deliberately scholarly debate about his writings. It behooves my colleagues to ensure that they don't succumb to the temptation to transform university websites into places to heckle colleagues. That would be to reproduce the elemental features of the cynical universe of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, a universe (I argue elsewhere) of social Darwinism in which insinuation and name-calling replaces critical thinking. To proceed this way in the name of Northrop Frye seems abhorrent to me, and completely at odds with the intellectual wager of his public work.
|Q - You call McMaster's graduate programme in English a "richly supportive learning environment." How does this compare to the undergraduate experience, and how does such an environment help -- or hinder -- its students?|
|A - I would say that the undergraduate programme at McMaster is indeed analogously one that is richly supportive. You have no idea--or perhaps you do--how much time and energy faculty put into creating a rigorous and imaginative educational environment for undergraduate students. It's quite moving, really, to be part of this complicated and ever-changing process, a process that is fundamentally ethical in its motivations and outcome. As an instructor, one can be "supportive" in lots of different ways, and by adopting different teaching styles, as it were. For me what works best is supporting my students by not being afraid to adopt teaching personae that are difficult. I want to create very difficult classroom spaces for my students, since difficulty is what I am trying to teach. That doesn't work for everyone, including myself, all the time. But then no teaching strategy does.
The classroom is of course also a scene of many resistances, failures, and even, it should be said, sadness. I had a student this year who plagiarized work, and, as always, you come away from such a thing as an instructor, even one relatively long in the tooth like myself, feeling really depressed. In plagiarism, suddenly the fragility of the compact we have all entered into when we teach and learn together is brought out into the open. You realize that this compact can in an instant be dissolved, violated. For a moment you wonder whether all the effort you put into your classes has been worth it, if there are creatures out there who are really on another planet than you are when it comes to the question of education. Then you remember all the great students you have had and are teaching now, the ones who are struggling with you, immersed in the same difficulties.
There are ways in which our undergraduate programme fails its students though. Take, for example, the appalling classroom spaces which students and faculty must endure at our university. I've taught in four universities in two countries in my career and McMaster's classrooms are handily the worst I've seen--poorly lit, badly ventilated, ill-equipped, and often filthy. Classrooms in the newer buildings are in much better shape, to be sure, but many of us, myself included, don't teach in those privileged spaces. The university administration doesn't seem to grasp that a wretched classroom affects how teaching and learning happens. The condition of a classroom says something palpable about the university's commitment to its students. So I cordially invite the Provost and the President to come down to JHE 326H, for example, where I have taught a large evening class, and to consider what sort of message this deeply unhappy room is conveying to students. Windowless, dimly lit, and dishevelled, the room is closer to an abandoned warehouse than a welcoming forum for learning. Here, I dare say, students learn despite working in a slovenly and poorly equipped space. There's a lot of self-aggrandizing talk on campus about putting our students into "smart" classrooms, but trust me, a great many professors and students are working in teaching spaces that are, quite to the contrary,stupid and stupefying.
Another way the university fails its students is the course evaluation process, which I consider to be a cruel joke that is played on the undergraduates several times a year, year after year. I don't believe that the university is in fact the slightest bit interested in really evaluating teaching or education. If it were, a great deal more effort and money would be poured into the process. As it is, the university has simply sought the cheapest, most uninvolved and unreflective way to proceed, all under the ridiculous guise of claiming to involve students in their own education. And so I'd like to spend some time here reflecting upon the limitations of the current notion of evaluation at this university, since it condenses into one questionable institutional practice so many of the problems plaguing higher education. What the university is interested in is creating the simulation of welcoming student involvement in the evaluative process, this, in the shape of those ghastly course "evaluations" that I am compelled by university regulations to hand out to students each term. There is nothing truly evaluative about these forms. How could there be, since, methodologically speaking, they are indistinguishable from those little cards you might fill out at your local fast-food outlet. Was your burger hot? How was the service? Were the bathrooms clean? Resorting to a form that is nothing more than a modified multiple-choice questionnaire, the humanities--inexplicably unsure of its legitimacy, once again--resorts to simulating the quantitative methods of the social sciences, the result being that the evaluation of teaching and of education gets reduced to yet another instance of "testing." How suspiciously reassuring that is for everyone involved... The evaluations we now hand out are therefore an embarrassment to me. After weeks and weeks of teaching critical theory in a given course, and thus trying to encourage the importance of rigorous and nuanced thought in my students, I conclude the course by handing out a form that says, in effect, "okay, forget about whatever you learned in this course about 'reading slowly,' and start behaving instead like a mindless automaton." The form says: "all the university wants from you is the equivalent of a sound-bite, nothing more." Just look at the reductive way in which this form constructs the learning experience. It renders students into mere consumers of their education. To be sure, consumption is one way of describing education. Money is exchanging hands, so commodification and consumption is happening. But, really, what happens on a day to day basis in any given class cannot summarily be confined to an act of consumption, so its evaluation should properly reflect that fact. It should reflect, among other things, how courses succeed or fail largely because of the combined efforts of students and instructors. Evaluation should also always mean self evaluation, a careful reflection on your own contribution to your education, whether you are a teacher or a student. You'd never know that though from looking at how course and teaching evaluation is handled in this faculty. The existing undergraduate evaluation forms, which are so anxiously prescriptive in their design, seek actively to prevent any of that sort of thinking. In its presentation and in its design, the form in effect demands a hurried rather than carefully considered response . The form is notable for its sheer impatience , this, when patience and understanding are most needed . The evaluation form is weirdly pushy and "actionable," in the sense that it normatively requires students to say something, anything, at this very moment. --So you either fill the form out, as quickly as you can.... or you decline to fill out the form, an d thus say nothing. W hat a ridiculously unfair and stark set of possibilities that leaves students to ponder-- an exemplary instance of being backed into a corner and given a "forced choice." I've always thought it very revealing that no course evaluation form includes a question like: "You need not feel commanded to evaluate the course right now. Indeed, the faculty would much rather encourage you to reflect on the nature of this course, carefully considering things like: its design and execution, as well as the extent of your commitment to making the course and your education a succes s. Don't forget too to reflect on the material commitments that the university made to the course. Since the university values rigorous critical analysis above all else, please feel free to take your time in crafting your evaluation, and get back to us when you've had a chance to think rigorously about what you would like to say." No, we are a long way from course evaluations that would include that sort of welcoming instruction. So for the reasons that I've tried to outline here on this blog, I no longer read the evaluations once they are completed, since I believe that to do so is to collaborate with what I view to be an intellectually bereft and indeed quite cynical process. I remain acutely responsible to the educational needs of my students, but I'm not convinced that the current course evaluation process aids me in that labour. And let me reassure those students who have a very different view of the course evaluations than mine that the evaluations are nevertheless carefully considered by the chair of my department, and by the Office of the Associate Dean. They do not go unread.
Now, about course evaluations by graduate students I feel somewhat more ambivalence. This is a matter I'm still trying to sort out. I'm tempted to consider graduate course evaluations as readable, not because the forms themselves are any more intelligent or responsible than the forms that the undergraduates are asked fill out (they are not), or because I "value" graduate students over undergraduate students (I do not), but because graduate students in our department are expressly encouraged to bring their full critical powers to bear on the nature of their education. A central part of their education is the very matter of education, not least because many of these students are in graduate school with the intention of becoming educators themselves. Students in the CSCT MA program, for example, take a core course that is in fact about pedagogy, the university, and the question of the public intellectual, so the hope for me is that in this much more encouraging and critical learning environment students will overwrite the simple-mindedness of the evaluation form we currently throw at them, and put those forms to better use, i.e., to a use that responds to the complexity of the scene of teaching and learning rather than compelling students to flee hurriedly from it. Many of our most rigorous and professional graduate students subsequently handle the course evaluation forms with an extraordinary degree of thoughtfulness.
But as I say, I don't think there are any substantial signs that McMaster is in fact the slightest bit interested in doing justice to teaching . Instead, students and colleagues are differently bullied into treating the troubles that are not just a part but an originary part of the classroom as being susceptible to the technical fix--as an error that Facebook, student polling, I-Clicker and other "personal response systems in the classroom," (to use the most current and most ghastly example of McMaster jargon), teacher make-overs, and "Second Life" will solve. (As my undergraduate theory students say to me, after considering Plato's robust indictment of those poor souls mesmerized by simulations of life while the world burns around them, who the hell needs "Second Life" when "First Life," real life, is so much more interesting and pressing?) The university doesn't, I believe, actually have a robust interest in discovering the pedagogical strengths and weaknesses of these various "fixes." Under these conditions, what is too quickly called the “good education” only disguises a will to mastery–a mistaken desire to have mastery over one's students and over oneself. But as educational theorists like Deborah Britzman argue, education happens, if it happens at all, in that fragile and unruly frontier between teacher and student, and by rights is not about building self-esteem and consolidating identities but much rather about learning to dwell with difficulty and un common sense . . . not wishing these things away. The university—its administrators, its faculty members, its students—should strive mightily to accommodate and to foster lots of different kinds of teachers and lots of different ways of teaching, rather than as is presently the case, in which normative pressure is brought to bear on untenured professors to handle their classrooms in one way, i.e. in a way that creates or is imagined to create “happiness” in students. Here I am firmly with Kant, who taught us in the 1790's that doing justice had nothing whatsoever to do with happiness. The remarkable thing is that, in my experience, there are lots of students out there who instantly see through this cynical ruse, and who don't want to be subjected to this kind of patronizing move by the university. They quite rightly want a rigorous and difficult classroom, one centred on hard, open-ended and unanswerable questions and on encouraging students to ask analogously arduous questions of themselves. These are students who aren't interested in reducing classrooms to tidy little psychodramas, as places to rehearse their old emotional conflicts in new settings, or as places where “personalities” end up mattering more than creating an education. Notice I say creating and not getting : for there are plenty of good students who grasp right away the importance of actively participating in their education, rather than sitting back and passively expecting it to come, fully formed, to them.
That kind of consumerist model of education only transforms student evaluations into nothing more than customer satisfaction surveys, and hides from view the irreducible fact that education is a co-operative labour, in which students bear just as much responsibility for the teaching and learning that happens as the professor. And this isn't even to mention the consequential ways in which the university plays a role--for example, by failing to replace lost faculty, much less hire new professors, thereby dooming even senior students to large classes, by failing properly to equip classrooms, in some case failing even to light and ventilate them properly, by failing do everything it can to jettison a consumerist model of education. Some students and some university administrators find the argument that the responsibility for education lies on the shoulders of many different university actors very hard to hear; I mean, they pay lip service to it, but don't actually believe it to be true. If they did, the whole evaluation system would be recognized for what it is—wholly inadequate to the task. Instead, we have things like the Centre for Leadership in Learning. The Centre is no doubt staffed by earnest and hard-working colleagues, some of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and who I have welcomed into my own classes. It's the idea of the Centre that is symptomatically revealing and disappointing, though, for it inadvertently promotes the notion of the disabled teacher, and of teaching as a matter of deploying the “right” bag of tricks in the classroom. It fails to theorize the relationship between the problem of teaching and the teaching of problems. It makes the difficulties of teaching soley the teacher's burden; with some very rare exceptions (for example, teachers who aren't competent in the field, or who act in malign ways), I don't actually believe this to be the case. I'd like to see a Centre instead devoted to teaching students how to learn as much as teaching teachers how to teach, and committed to the counter-idea that the classroom is a place in which all parties--students, professors, and university administrators--must bring a great deal to the table, and on a consistent basis. What we have now couldn't be farther from this model. What we have now is a system in which a small handful of “negative” teaching evaluations can actually make or break the chances of a professor being promoted or tenured. Customer satisfaction forms that encourage students to treat their education in terms of personalities and popularity, and that shift the burden of education from them to the teacher, can now play a significant role in the terms and conditions of employment at McMaster, with no attempt made to analyze the efficacy of these forms, or to determine in any rigorous way what it is that they actually mean.
I think that it is very revealing that my own faculty has now moved to on-line web-based course evaluation forms, the effect of which is to maximize the distance between students and the actual scene of their education since now they don't even need to bother to attend class to fill out the forms. The university could hardly do better when it comes to ensuring that the local messiness and cooperative labour of the classroom, which are, after all, the chief sources of its success or failure, gets sublimated, i.e., abstracted and virtualized. Virtualizing evaluation expresses the university's desire to evaporate the vexed material conditions of university education, and so is a way of making it seem as if those conditions don't really matter. (And as if the classroom weren't already the site of the most interesting and consequential forms of virtualization, re-presentation, repetition, and difference. As if, "there" where education is thought to happen wasn't also always an elsewhere, i.e. wholly over-determined by and answerable to absent presences of various kinds--the cultural conditions and regulatory ideals of education, the psychical and political unconsciousnesses at work in teaching and learning, including what Kant characterized as the mysterious will not to know, as well as the local institutional practices that shape the classroom "before" a student and a teacher arrives, and that suture the individual classroom to a much larger enterprise. Is that what this on-line evaluation process is also about: an anxiously defensive gesture designed to hypostatize or objectify the troubling virtualities haunting the classroom, the objective being to externalize these things, and jettison them from the classroom?) For some, it seems, it is so much more comforting to address the question of education by remote control. Why? And to what effect? Here the medium really is the message.
The fact that customer satisfaction surveys, and a banally consumerist approach to the classroom, remain the primary model for the evaluation of education at McMaster is only confirmed by this thoughtless move to on-line forms. And we know with absolute certainty that the university now views its evaluation process as so much junk food to be consumed as quickly as possible and as a kind of media spectacle, in which the student is compelled to observe their education from a safe distance rather than involving themselves in the entire project. How do we know this? In my faculty, any student who fills in an on-line form is automatically entered into a draw to win "a wide-screen LG LCD television." The calculated cynicism of a university trying to buy-off or lure its students in this manner would be humorous if it weren't also so sad, so degrading, so patronizing...and so telling. The fact that my faculty even feels the need to tantalize students with such trinkets suggests that many students are ignoring the on-line forms. I wonder why? Is it because they sense that the university isn't really committed to the evaluation of teaching and learning? Is it because they tire of being told that evaluation is only about instant polling and about reacting to personalities? Is it because they sense that these forms further privatize and atomize education, instead of of encouraging students to join their instructors in a larger assessment of the university, its big "structural" problems (the precariousness of its massive part-time teaching faculty, its inability to prioritize the hiring of tenurable faculty either to make up for the loss of existing faculty or to help departments thrive and to grow in new directions, its unwillingness to address the gross inequality of the quality of classroom spaces and student-teacher ratios across campus, the chronic under-funding of certain faculties, departments, and programs, the weird and untenable obsession with meaningless normative abstractions like "excellence" and "innovation," among other questions). Instead, as I say, students are encouraged to think of education as a "private" matter between themselves and their individual professor, rather than invited to make education and the evaluation of education a more complexly "public" and substantive concern, i.e., one involving shared responsibilities and a scouring critique of the university's institutional practices and policies. I would argue that this highly enriched practice of evaluation should be folded into the university curriculum, for example, in the form of a first-year year course devoted precisely to discussing and debating "the meaning and significance of education," as Roger Simon says, recalling that just such a freshman course has been mandatory for students at Bard College ("The University: A Place to Think? 54).
One of the two core courses in the M.A. program in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory is indeed devoted to exploring the the question of the university, but Bard's inspiring example often makes me think, when I teach this course, that we should be doing this kind of evaluative work much earlier on, i.e., from the day our undergraduates set foot on campus. In this way we make the university worthy of evaluation and evaluation worthy of the university. In the mean time, being told to go away and fill out the evaluation form in your own home or in a campus food court strikes me as an attempt to put as much distance as possible between students and the urgent matter of grappling critically with the material conditions and intellectual milieu of their education. It's much easier and much less troublesome for the university if a student is taught to view herself or himself as a mere observer of their classes, like a television viewer,rather than an active participant in the difficulty of education. And if students every now and then do break through this kind of indoctrination and comment critically upon the material conditions that directly form and deform their education, the fact that they are doing so in these on-line evaluations practically guarantees that nothing will come of those comments. We ask for poll-like "opinions" and what we get is treated as a mere poll-like "opinion," and that kind of privatized assessment takes the place of more robust and reasoned public critiques of the institution as a whole. Evaluation is shrivelled up into a matter of individual worries and disaggregated voices. The evaluation process, and, by extension, education itself gets wikified. Instead of working in complex and sustained ways towards the creation of better students, better teachers, better classrooms, the university offers the chance--however remote--that you'll a win a flat-screen TV, and not any TV but a name-brand TV. An impoverished evaluation system hopes to redeem itself with the glittering promise of quick riches. So it is that my faculty welcomes casino capitalism into its very midst, notwithstanding the fact that this model has proven so spectacularly wrong-headed, so utterly insolvent, in the world at large. --Nothing like seeing the Humanities shake hands with the devil! Why don't we just sell the whole process to mtvU? Isn't trading flat-screen televisions for professor "ratings" the same thing as mtvU? The university couldn't be clearer about how little it actually thinks of its evaluation process, now that it has resorted to such inducements and product endorsements. That's a shame. That is the university's shame.
Long before I made my disappointment with the current teaching evaluation process public on this blog, I noticed that a significant number of students weren't even bothering to fill out the required forms. Or they were filling them out in the most desultory, mannered, and careless way, and one of the reasons, I'm betting, is that they are sick and tired of the bogus notion of education that they imply, promote, and police. Other students fill these forms out by resorting to stagily exaggerated claims and one-liners (both positive and negative), rather than taking the time and effort rigorously to reflect upon their educational experience, the work that they actually put into their education, as well as the work that the instructor contributed (not to mention the university's commitment). In their own way, these evaluations too register the paucity of the evaluation process, its demeaning inability to address the richness of the scene of teaching and learning. I therefore think that it is revealing that, in my own faculty, no attention is paid to the percentage of students in any given class who fill out the forms; no attention is paid either to the statistical relevance of the data, given the often small "populations" involved. What we get statistically, therefore, is pretty well junk, mostly meaningless numbers about which the university administration then gets to say what it wants, when it wants. So you'll understand when I pose this question: Why don't students band together and demand better treatment?
So when I say that I'm not particularly interested in the current teaching evaluation system, that refusal should be understood in the context of asking larger questions about education at McMaster. Dissent from blindly reproducing the "logic of accountability"--to use Bill Readings' phrase--shouldn't be treated as a refusal to commit to becoming a better teacher. So it's very important to me for students, colleagues, and administrators to resist the temptation to position strong objections to the current evaluation protocols as an objection to being evaluated. We must try not to confuse "accountability with accounting," as Readings says. And as Dominick LaCapra argues, a chief example of "the conflation of accountability with accounting is the use of multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank evaluation forms that lend themselves to rapid responses and numerical tabulation rather than the use of critical essays through which students may reflect on the nature of a course, or universities address the state of their own activities." Even after more than twenty years in the classroom I am still learning how to teach, which for me is a project that is less about perfecting pedagogical techniques and more about exploring and renewing our shared educational responsibilities--my responsibilities, but also those shouldered by students, administrators, and the culture at large. Now, along the way, I've been honoured to have been given an MSU Teaching Award, and to have been presented with the President's Award for Graduate Supervision. And I was surprised when Maclean's magazine twice named me as one of the university's "popular professors"--surprised and, frankly, a little dubious, since I don't identify good teaching with likeability or popularity, quite the opposite in fact. What matters more than these forms of recognition, though, is the informed criticisms of my students. Their judgments about their learning experiences are an essential part of education, including my own education as a researching teacher; they remain something I want and need from students at every step. The problem does not lie with student evaluations but with the forcefully reductive way in which my students are compelled to evaluate their classroom experiences with me. Students work very hard in my classes; we work hard together on difficult materials; so my point is that they deserve better, much better, means by which to make intelligent evaluations of their courses and of their education at McMaster more generally. But I sometimes fear students have been so interpolated into the administrative logic of the university, into its desire to have done with anything that might actually be messily unpredictable like theevaluation of education, that they no longer have the will to work with the university to create a process that actually reflects the complexity of the thing that is being evaluated. In my dreams I sometimes imagine a cadre of students encouraging others to do a little bit of "culture-jamming" when it comes to these evaluations, of finding ways to disrupt and to short-circuit the process and to draw attention to its inadequacies. Just think what would happen if the evaluation process was itself radically re-evaluated by the very students it supposedly serves!
|Q - You've said in the past that McMaster students' shortcomings lie in our shabby attendance records and excessive politeness. As your last response suggests, we might be marred by apathy as well. Any advice on how we can dig ourselves out of this too-early (albeit inviting) grave of indifference?|
|A - Is it apathy? I'm not sure that this is necessarily the case, at least when it comes to the matter of the course evaluation process. I'd have to think carefully about this term, which has a complex history, and which, in the hands of certain philosophers, like Kant, even has positive valences. To be perfectly frank, I do wish that students cultivated a certain kind of a-pathy when it comes to their education, by which I mean a way of living an academic life that was less unthinkingly invested in "feeling" or "pathos." A-pathy: without pathos. For me, way too much emphasis is given to how students "feel" about their professors, their classes. And predictably and understandably enough, professors respond to that focus on how their students "feel" about them. But does it really matter whether professors or classes are "likeable" or "unlikeable" in affective terms? Recently Paul A. Trout has emphasized the degree to which student evaluations are dominated by a very particular cluster of affects, namely outrage and shame. Why is it that some students choose to experience difficulty in class, and a teacher's rigorous refusal simply to make things happily and comfortably agreeable, as shame and as being-shamed? Why experience the classroom negatively as a scene of outrage calling for retaliation and one-upmanship rather than positively as a scene of stimulation, challenge, and open-endedness, a scene in which students are invited to tarry with difficulty, and to be patient with what seems alien, even alienating, and to embrace rather than shrink angrily from course materials or teaching strategies that they may not understand all at once? Where does that angry misunderstanding of teaching and learning in the classroom come from, I wonder? And why is it that the evaluation system that is currently in place seems to encourage students to express their response to that experience by wanting mostly to shame their professor? As Trout points out, professors in the humanities in turn start to tweak their courses and their ways of teaching so as to minimize inadvertently creating this fantasy of "shame" in their students, and to protect themselves from those students who choose to experience the classroom as a scene of shaming accusation and who therefore want to see their professors shamed and accused in turn. This spiral of reaction, aggression, paranoia, flippancy, and one-upmanship, not to mention by turns stagy approval and outrage, produces things like the RateMyProfessor websites, in which students often give expression to their fervent and virile wish that their mutual and individual educations be destroyed. (Ratemyprofessor? More like atemyprofessor....) Under these sentimentalized conditions, the feeling that one is being poorly serviced in the classroom is expressed as a desire to silence the teacher, a classic instance of what Derrida calls "auto-immunity:" "In the name of education, I will stop education from happening!" Or: "In the name of keeping trouble out of my education, I will make trouble for my teacher!" The desire to get the last word and to be a harping spectator of their education rather than an active participant in that education is very strong. To give you an example: a colleague at a nearby university recently had a student describe her teaching as “intelligent. But he resented some autobiographical remarks that she made. His “evaluation”? If she were his “girlfriend,” he says, he’d be “digging a shallow grave for her.” So, in one three sentence “teaching evaluation,” the student affirms the quality of the course, and then fantasizes about having a relationship with the professor and murdering her! It gets worse. The student assumes–along with RateMyProfessor—that it’s perfectly okay to broadcast that kind of misogynist sociopathy on the web. So much for “rating” as a way of actually evaluating teaching and learning or involving students in their education. This student makes luridly palpable the underlying assumption that evaluation means only giving expression to an unexamined sense of grievance and an overwhelming need to control education, bind and bury it. Rather than examining the nature of that injury and why they want to hold others responsible for it, they take the easy way out: expressing themselves in anonymous sound-bytes, and indulging in feelings that are childish because so stark, polarizing, and coarse. In this case the “logic” goes: “The teacher’s life and the life of the classroom feels like death to me. So I want the teacher to die and what makes my education troublesome to die with her.” Where to begin? It always surprises me that students don’t do everything they can to jam these kinds of sites, whose very existence trivializes and infantilizes them and their educations.
Remarkable, isn't it, that all this time and effort gets wasted when the task of actually engaging the struggle to teach and to learn, a struggle we all share, whether as teachers, students, or administrators remains so pressing. Teaching and learning should be a struggle; it should be trying, difficult, disconcerting. All I can say is that if these agonistic qualities of the classroom--qualities which are essential to the enterprise, rather than "problems" that need to be "solved"--get misunderstood as shame and victimization, well, then all of us really do have our work cut out for us. That work begins by carefully discriminating between actual instances of exclusion--which undoubtedly can and do happen in classrooms--and putting the fantasy of shamed exclusion to a very particular use, namely making sure that one's own education is as free as possible from discomfort. Indeed, I'd argue that the slash-and-burn attitudinizing that often characterizes the ratemyprofessor entries in turn inflects the ways in which the university evaluation forms get filled out. Or maybe it is the other way around; perhaps the nervous energy quickened and regulated by the university evaluation forms made ratemyprofessor possible? In any case, both kinds of assessment are bereft in their own way, since both exploit and reinforce the assumption that the only way to speak and be heard is by ranting. How crazy is that? One form of assessment is administered by the university to pacify students (as a place to burn off pent-up affect...and feel good about it), and the other is run by savvy entrepreneurs looking to rake in advertizing revenues under the guise of encouraging students to outdo each other in "speaking their mind." It shouldn't be forgotten, after all, that RateMyProfessor (and its subsidiary, RateMyStudent) is owned by mtvU, the 24-hour cable channel whose sole reason for being is to funnel advertising into university residences. What gets lost in all of this hype, of course, is answering to the needful matter of encouraging the best teaching and learning conditions for both students and professors.
Who knows, and who bothers to know what is meant by "liking" or "disliking" a particular professor or course? Who takes the time and effort to figure out what is being described by such generalizations--generalizations, by the way, that in effect i) censor and deform education (this, by favouring what is felt to be "popular" and thus discouraging what is "unpopular"), and ii) privatize the experience of education, confining it to a psychological matter of individual opinion or popularity, rather than opening up the discussion to wider and more complex and unsafe realms. Students are tacitly encouraged to think of their educations in these literally and figuratively pathetic terms--that is, in terms that are restrictively about feeling, pathos, rather than about thinking, with all the intellectual and pedagogical risks that that entails. So, yes, in a certain way, I'm saying let's have more a-pathy and less pathos in the discussion about education and teaching, this, in the name of giving professors like me the courage to be less worried about being popular and more interested in being difficult, of teaching difficulty. I'm with Kant on this: my role as a professor in the humanities is never to appeal to happiness and enjoyment in my students, not because I'm "against" happiness and enjoyment (far from it!), but because I object to what is too often done to education in the name of trying to make it happy and enjoyable: namely an underlying emphasis on conformity, thoughtlessness, intellectual safety, friendly fellow-feeling, and nurturing comfortableness. Let me say this more baldly: the university does not exist to advance the happiness of its students. My role as a researching teacher is not to make my students happy. Let me turn to an admittedly coarse analogy. For students to want me to make them happy is like going to your physician and asking her why she hasn't fixed your broken car. She can certainly hope that you find a way to get your car fixed, not least because that might help you get to your appointments with her on time, but repairing your car is in the end not her interest or anything that falls under her purview. Fixing your car is something that you need to do, not your physician. --Much better to try your level best to park your worries about your car at the door when you enter the physician's office, this, so that you can focus on the important matter of your health.
And it stands to reason that the reverse holds true too: students should never be reduced to trying to find ways to make me happy. I wince inside every time students say to me that their chief objective is to do work in class that matches what I "want" or rather what they imagine that I "want." I can't tell you how much I regret it when a student ends an e-mail to me with a sentence like, "Is this what you want?" What makes hearing this kind of language dispiriting is that it comes from such a grim place and suggests such a profound misunderstanding of education. It suggests that the student--perhaps without realizing it--has wholly privatized and individualized education, reducing it to a kind of rebus in which what matters is parsing the mystery of the professor's desires. It suggests that the student has come to view education as a matter ofsimply giving the professor what the student thinks or imagines that the professor "wants." Narrowing and coarsening education this way safely transforms it into a matter of gaming the system, and assumes that professors have an idiosyncratic and ready-made answer, entirely of their own making and reflecting only their "personal" views, that they in turn "want" students to puzzle out. Where did such an impoverished misunderstanding of education, knowledge, power, and desire come from, I wonder? What worries me about this model of education is that it points to the abrogation of teaching and learning. It marks the fearful turning away from what makes education education, namely holding teachers and learners alike accountable to principled arguments and public forms of reasoning. To characterize learning as merely aligning yourself with what you think your teacher desires, what will make her or him "happy," is to avoid facing the fact that learning is about meeting larger and more complex expectations that transcend individual students and individual teachers. In a profound way, what I "want" is irrelevant. What matters is what you do, and how you think. If professors "want" anything from students it is for them demonstrate intellectual courage and curiosity, to read rigorously and carefully, to marshal evidence and to make arguments that are judicious, informed, and capacious. Those aren't learning objectives that are at all reducible to what an individual professor "wants," for they are the very basis of education itself. We must be so careful not to reduce education to a private transaction, in which the student and teacher become customers of each other's imagined "wants," and instead to keep its possibilities and difficulties a public matter. Let us imagine and act upon education as if it unfolded in a public sphere in which teaching and learning each remain complexly answerable to larger principles and hopes.
Let us--professors and students both--risk classroom practices that refuse the promise of pedagogical guarantees. Guarantees pacify the classroom, and align teaching and learning with larger social forces whose intent and effect is also the mollification and quieting of the public sphere. Let us abandon classrooms guided by the peculiar notion that teaching and learning should be without any kind of substantial wager, i.e., banally predictable zones of comfort. As the American theorist, Cathy Caruth has recently argued, pedagogy--meaning both teaching and learning--that is worthy of the name "must flirt with failure, since it is only in its own precariousness that the learning of singularity and chance may arise" ("Afterword: Turning Back to Literature," PMLA 125.4 1092). My experience has been that a significant number of students are willing and able to take on all sorts of risks, notwithstanding the fact that their lives are otherwise often brimming with precariousness: unbearable questions (to remember something Plato says), difficult knowledges, exhausting work-loads, unpredictable outcomes, unexpected moves in individual classrooms and courses, strange new critical languages, disconcerting responses, unanswered questions, startling revelations, laborious lines of reasoning....to name a few possibilities. These students are willing and able, moreover, to accept being challenged, directed, and even, in a certain sense, obstructed in class; they demonstrate the capacity to face resistance and even incredulity, either from others--including myself--or within themselves. These students are up to the task of encountering, welcoming, and wrestling with the "singularity"--to use Caruth's smart term--of both the professor's knowledge (what he or she brings to the classroom) and of the assigned course material, material that should, by rights, be new, and full of the disconcertingly unexpected. The singularity of the student--his or her knowledge and history and expectations--is also crucially important to this volatile mix. And where there are singularities, there are necessarily risks. Many--but not all--students demonstrate that they are quite capable of facing these forms of resistant otherness; they grasp that teaching and learning, if it happens, emerges not out of predictability or out of knowing ahead of time what and how they are to learn....but rather out of unpredictability. If it happens: there can be no guarantees in the kinds of classrooms and the kinds of teaching practices that I am here affirming. The important thing for me is to create classes where such risks are fostered. Risk, "singularity," difficulty, and resistance: all of these phenomena call for nothing less than intellectual courage by students and educators alike. So it is that strength above all that I look for and encourage in my classes. That is the point where my students and I can forge such interesting forms of intergenerational solidarity, notwithstanding the enormous differences between us.
Now, some students--both graduate and undergraduate--flee from difficulty, and prefer to pursue what is familiar (or what seems familiar), safe, known, and knowable. They select courses, choose essay topics and dissertation projects, as well as manage and experience their educations in the most cautious way possible, i.e. in ways that reinforce already existing understandings and identities, and that shore up the wall dividing what is known and what remains unknown. They shrink from difference and from professors who "feel" different. For the most part, they dwell in what Sidney calls "the dangerless academy." Other students, thank goodness, will have none of that, and given the chance--the very thing that Caruth says lies elementally at the heart of teaching and learning--they will take a chance. I'm lucky to have had and to have so many intellectually courageous undergraduate and graduate students. But I wouldn't be honest and I wouldn't be a teacher if I didn't also say how disappointed I am when I see students who are unwilling and unable to take the sorts of risks for which I am calling. The only greater disappointment for me is seeing the different ways in which the university can, on occasion, fail to encourage and demand intellectual courage, the ways in which it can make growing that particular pedagogical strength next to impossible.
Nobody said teaching and learning would be easy. Nobody said it would be so hard. But the important thing is to break with the idea that there should be a teaching and learning monoculture at the university. Students deserve the chance of moving between sharply different sorts of classrooms. Professors deserve the opportunity to wager wildly different teaching practices. For all sorts of reasons, the university tends towards the creation of a pedagogical monoculture, especially during periods of extraordinary financial scarcity, so it's up to students and professors to develop strategies, practices, and personae that try as hard as possible to break the institution of that very bad habit. Isn't it possible that both students and professors have an obligation to teach the university a thing or two about teaching and learning?
So, no, I say again, education is not about making students happy or making teachers happy, not by a long shot. For some, that is a hard statement to hear; but for many others, for many of my students, it makes perfect sense. Indeed, my long experience has been that once students have an opportunity to take on board what I am saying, to absorb the implications of me telling them that the course that I am teaching does not have their happiness as its goal, many of them are relieved. They are relieved no longer to be held hostage to the idea that learning is the same thing as happiness, and that whenever they feel less than happy, education cannot be happening. They are relieved no longer to be patronized by this idea, and instead to be freed to experience their education in new and more generative ways. And I say this even though I know full well that many of my students are struggling with very burdensome lives. I have students who are labouring under the enormous and sometimes unreasonable expectations of family and friends, students who are juggling a job or several jobs along with their schooling, students whose days are taken up raising families or caring for elders. I have students enduring emotional traumas that make me tremble to hear of them. I've had students lose a parent to illness, a sibling to suicide. I've had many students who are living with major mental illness, or suffering from depression or anxiety attacks or substance abuse. And this isn't even to mention the students who feel the full weight of an atomized and isolating culture around them, a culture brimming with strident forms of anti-intellectualism and distrust of humanities education in particular, a culture that ignores students' futures, their intelligence, their hopes and fears. --A culture that treats youth unemployment and youth poverty as a minor question, one that students are told will simply solve itself, or not, depending on the whims of the market. These are students who are dismissed by columnists and pundits who would rather see billions of tax dollars spent on useless weapons and preparing for future wars than risk the chance of creating an educated, fully employed, and dissenting citizenry. Students have a great deal on their plate, which I certainly acknowledge. It is, as it were, invariably a part of what teaching is about now, as any professor will tell you. What is moving to behold and important to register is the remarkable resourcefulness, courage, and imagination with which a many students address these difficulties. They are not the "lazy" and "sheltered" cohort that they are too often made out to be. Far from it.
So in a way it doesn't surprise me that so many of these students are relieved to be in a classroom where their personal happiness isn't the most important issue and in fact isn't an issue at all. That way of thinking about education feels inadequate, patronizing, and immature. They are relieved no longer to be expected to measure their success or their "worth" in a classroom setting according to the coarsening and simplifying lens of how they are "feeling" towards the professor or towards the material being considered--especially if those feelings are black and white. They find respite in realizing that education need not be experienced in what psychoanalysis would call "idealizing" terms, i.e. in terms that "split" education into conveniently polarized conditions of unqualified or uncomplicated "love" or "hate." They are relieved to know that they don't need to look to the professor as the sole source of their satisfaction or emotional well-being, and instead to look around and to look within, where the roots of sadness, alienation, loss, regret, and frustration actually dwell. Educational theorists like Deborah Britzman, who informs a great part of my teaching practice, points out a curious thing: education for both teachers and learners is such a layered and complex phenomenon. When we enter into an educational relation, teacher and learner, we bring with us so many things: these include the histories of our own educations, going back to our infancy, and the myriad ways in which the culture in which we were raised continues to school us, subject us, making demands on us, shaping our hopes and fears. The material that a student encounters in a particular course is another part of this messy scene--sometimes that material induces states of trouble ranging from boredom, complacency, and cynicism to fear to love. But, Britzman points out, the terms and tools with which we are instructed to experience education are so impoverished, so stark, incriminating and accusatory. "Why don't you please me?," a student might ask. "Why is my teacher so monstrous?" Or: "Why is he/she so viscerally offensive to me?" "Why is he/she attacking me this way?" "Why isn't my professor the particular way I want him or her to be?" "Why must I endure different kinds of teaching strategies, different kinds of classrooms, different sorts of expectations?" "Why aren't you making me happier?," a professor might respond: "What can I do to be more likeable?" My view is that these sorts of questions, while understandable, are very far off the mark, and yet they form the basis of how too much of education is experienced, discussed, and evaluated. Why is that? The poverty of the terms and narratives with which we are provided leads to impoverished educational experiences that are dominated by fantasies of accusation, disgust, and aggression about a course, teacher, classmates, school, and life. These terms and narratives encourage and perhaps even require students and teachers to be judgemental spectators of education, looking down on their classroom experiences as if from a safe distance, and as if that experience had nothing to do with them, and as if they weren't at the very heart of that education, woven into its very fabric. By far the better question, the more generative question that Britzman asks is this: What is it about education that we are protecting ourselves from by resorting and by being told to resort to these sorts of "idealizing" and immobilizing stories, these accusatory and recriminating questions that require such black and white answers, these kinds of strategies to keep us "safe" from the responsibilities we each bear for teaching and being taught?
But like I say, my own classroom experience has been that a great many students are delighted to be freed from these narratives and terms. To be allowed and indeed encouraged to see that the professor isn't in fact the sole custodian of their feelings or responsible for their self-esteem is felt by lots of students to be surprisingly liberating. To take on much more responsibility for what one is feeling, rather than quickly blaming those emotions on others--the course, the university, the professor--well, that's a big step, but also helpful. What really encourages me is when I see a student move from experiencing certain immobilizing feelings about their education to a frank reflection on what those feelings are accomplishing. For example, a student might find that he or she is unwilling to attend class or to read the materials assigned in class. These aren't students who are simply too exhausted, because their days are taken up with jobs, raising families, illness, or other pressing concerns. The students I'm talking about here are those who could attend class or attend to the class material...but don't. For me, these are students who have surrendered to their feelings. Whence comes this capitulation? Rather than making do with familiar and reassuring "explanations" of why these sorts of things are happening ("I am bored by the material," "I don't like the professor," "I'm just not interested in attending class"), that same student might ask some very hard questions: "What does the feeling of boredom or indifference mask? Of what is it a kind of symptom?" Rather than taking these feelings at face value, and allowing them to over-take the student, governing his or her educational life, the same student can find the courage to ask both how and why he or she may have fallen into this sort of relationship to their schooling, a relationship that is conspicuously dedicated to keeping things "safe" and "uncomplicated," and that keeps a student from being an active agent in their own learning. As Kant says, the biggest challenge in education isn't a lack of knowledge. It's finding ways to address a will not to know, i.e., the powerful forces that prevent learning from happening. A few students remain in that indemnified state, protecting themselves from risking a messy relationship with education. And some teachers too. But lots of others learn to abandon that condition, a courageous move that always reminds me that a great part of education involves learning how to learn, i.e., not only learning new material and new teachers and new ways of thinking but also learning how to handle all this novelty, all of this unexpectedness...and the suite of feelings that come with that sort of adventure. And like I say, teachers too must undergo similarly harrowing experiences. They too much learn how to teach, i.e., to learn how to resist the overwhelming temptation to normalize education, make it likeable, pre-packaged, marketable, consumable, non-confrontational, and polite. My experience both as a student and as a teacher has been that these sorts of educators are often the most dogmatic, because their relationship to knowledge and to education has simplified and ossified. I dare say that these are perils teachers must guard against every day, but especially these days, when education is under siege, and when a humanities education worthy of the name must face terrific anti-intellectual forces both inside and outside the university.
Lots of students are relieved to tarry with difficulty and complexity (including difficult and complex feelings about education, the university, a particular course, its material and professor). They experience that condition not negatively as a privation of their happiness but instead as the very condition of them learning something important at all. The greatest thing about shifting education away from the question of happiness and of measuring education according to how much happiness is made available in the classroom is that it allows everyone involved, both teachers and learners, to focus on the task of education, which is formidable and which will always generate unhappiness and resonate with already existing unhappiness. I'm not suggesting a renunciation of unhappiness, just the notion that it is the chief means by which to measure the success or failure of either teaching or learning. Needless to say, as the professor I must take analogous precautions and find analogous forms of courage and frankness. I must ensure that I do not make my happiness a prerequisite for teaching well. I must refuse the temptation to teach classes and have a relationship to knowledge that is itself "idealizing," i.e. treating these things as if they were responsible for shoring up my own happiness and self-esteem. Being "liked" or "likeable," being unduly concerned with student aggression and recrimination, will not make me a better teacher. My happiness and self-esteem are no more important to the classroom than the happiness and self-esteem of my students. Teaching, like learning, is meant to be arduous, and calls for patience, hospitality, and the willingness to tarry with the sadness, anger, cynicism, as well as the joy and hope and thirst of others. To tarry with these things, not wish them away. --Not long for a classroom free of complexity. What happens in the classroom, what happens to teachers and learners, is measured, if it is to be measured at all, by an entirely different set of terms and narratives, and needs to be glimpsed through a very different optic than the one which we are too often handed.
If anything, it would be great to see the university administration, colleagues, and especially students happy with the idea of a classroom where whether a class is "enjoyable" or not is deemed to be quite irrelevant--a ruse, in fact, designed to distract everyone from the joyous turmoil and ardour of teaching and learning. So let us teach and take courses where enjoyment--or at least a certain normative notion of "enjoyment" and "satisfaction"--is much less of a concern, and where the very meaning of happiness and pleasure in education is radically unsettled and redefined, where it is experienced and pursued in startlingly new ways. Let us teach classes and pursue research projects that "wound our complacency, [and]...make us a little less confident in and satisfied with the immediate deliverances of our here-and-now imperious world," as Clifford Geertz says. Let us create classrooms where both affect and intellect--assuming for one instant that these worlds aren't always already braided together--is an open-question and a subject of exploration rather than an alibi or excuse for not carefully considering what happens when teaching happens and when learning happens.
What we want then are more "unhappy" classes, by which I mean classes where building self-esteem and keeping everyone pleased and comfortable are simply not that important. What we need are programs that resist the temptation to encourage our students to sentimentalize their educations. As teachers, part of our responsibility must then be to help students grasp the profound limitations of experiencing and understanding the labour and the love of learning in terms of heroes and villains, and as an operatic drama, brimming with blame and shame, in which the ideal of self-esteem is either thwarted or affirmed. I do not believe that the classroom is naturally any such place, so my question is where do such ways of experiencing teaching and learning come from, and why do they sometimes appear to hold the attraction that they do? In whose interests is it to sentimentalize education? This is a query administrators, teachers, and students might ask themselves: there’s enough guilt to go around. In any case, I would like to see students demanding that the university offer more courses and classes that say up-front that they will not patronize and infantilize students, will not treat them as if they had only personal enjoyment and individual happiness on their minds. By and large, it's not. But my observation is that faculty too come to believe in these sentimental stories, so much so that colleagues can, in certain circumstances, be surprisingly reluctant to admit or discuss difficulties that they are having with particular classes, as if those "problems" were the sign of a kind of technical incompetence at best, a kind of moral failing at worst. That’s worrisome. If you believe that unhappiness and resistance in the classroom is somehow only and always a reflection on the teacher’s abilities, and if you believe that discomforted students are students who aren't learning, who aren't "getting their money's worth," it’s so much easier and self-congratulating to claim that all of one’s classes are working wonderfully. Sometimes listening to some of my colleagues at various universities, I think to myself: “Are these classes on Mars? Where did such perfectly obliging students and beautifully unfolding courses come from? They don’t sound at all like the complex, messy, and unruly classes that I teach. These students sound to me like the academic equivalent of the Stepford Wives, yuck.” My classes are like any other: they brim with complicated human beings, men and women who are by turns dissenting, encouraged, encouraging, indifferent, absent, puzzled, confused, curious, and powerfully present...anything but dutiful robots in a well-oiled machine. Thank goodness, many other colleagues are much franker about the successes and failures in the classroom, and, more important, much more critically aware of the normative nature of the assumptions that determine exactly what constitutes “success” or “failure” in the classroom. Like I say, a successful course isn’t necessarily a happy one. And I'm not convinced that any of us, administrators, teachers, or students, have done our homework when it comes to determining what "success" or "failure" actually means in the classroom. We may think we know what these normative measurements mean, but only because the university doesn't do enough to nurture a climate of questioning regarding teaching and learning, and doesn't build into education some seriously hard thinking about education. In that sense the university aligns perfectly with the culture at large, which is similarly reluctant to accommodate citizens who are willing and able to consider critically the myriad ways in which that same culture schools us, teaches us how to govern and be govern. Best not to think about those sorts of things, whether in the university classroom or in the larger social sphere...god knows where such reflection might take us. That's the mentality at work here, and I regret it. The current means by which we determine "success" or "failure" in education thus strike me as oddly naive and evasive. They sentimentalize education, and patronize our students, keeping them in an immature educational condition from which, properly speaking, they deserve to be freed.
My own experience is that a significant number of students very much want the challenge of difficult courses, courses quickened by strenuously arduous expectations and forms of teaching. These are the sorts of students that see right away that happiness is neither their interest nor my responsibility in the classroom. Yet in explicit and implicit ways, I do think that students work in an institutional setting the mitigates against that insight. But of course it can be quite tricky negotiating this commitment to the arduous--rather than "happy"--classroom. As a teacher, after all, you want to create spaces that are free from coercion; you want the classroom to be a "safe" space, as the current educational jargon puts it. Yet this notion of "safety" is more problematic than it sometimes sounds, for it is important too to make sure that the classroom is "safe" for rigorous and critical thinking, "safe" for professors to assume challenging and even alienating teaching personae, "safe" for forms of teaching that are pointedly indifferent to ephemeral things like popularity, enjoyability, likeability, "safe" for classrooms where students are asked to think carefully and disruptively about what one means by "safety" in the context of teaching and learning. When Kant worries about the university, as he does in his extraordinary writings on the matter from the 1790s, I think he is raising this very question: how to create a zone within the culture in which one is permitted and indeed obliged to subject anything and everything to the agitation of critique? How to ensure that the university remains as protected as possible from those forces that would limit frank and robust critique, including those forces that are marshalled within the university in the name of "safety," in the name even of making the classroom a "safe space"? My point is that I don't think that there are easy answers to these questions, and that it is crucially important to raise and re-negotiate them in the classroom, as required. The "safe" classroom is a laudable objective, to be sure, but we also need to be scrupulous about not letting "safety" inadvertently become an alibi for not-thinking.
And this is not even to mention the importance of students being involved in the ongoing assessment of the university administration's role in their education. Provosts, Faculty Deans, Departmental Chairs, and Program Directors should also be evaluated by students when they assess their courses, since the sorts of decisions these administrators make and the kinds of policies they pursue have such a consequential bearing on the day to day lives of students in the classroom. Here are a couple of questions that I'm suggesting students need to ask as part of a larger, more rigorous evaluation of teaching and learning: Have these administrators ensured that enough professors have been hired to teach a program, and that the professors that are hired are adequately compensated (in terms of wages and benefits)? If not, what short and long term plans are in place to address these mistakes? How is the university rewarding professors who teach difficulty rather than self-esteem? Are your classrooms adequately equipped? Are your programs adequately staffed? What have you done to ensure that your professors are active researchers in the fields that they teach? Why is the curriculum organized the way that it is? Students need to be aware of the number of times their supposed "wishes" are used to justify university policies, even though the university has done nothing actually to determine what those wishes are. Let me point to one example: several years ago, the then Dean of the Faculty decreed that all undergraduate courses had to be three-units, the explanation being that students wanted more "choice." But did students really want more "choice," and did they actually say that having more "choice" trumped all other educational concerns? Little thought, for example, was given to the fact that six-unit courses sometimes make much more sense, pedagogically speaking, and that students might much rather have the option of choosing those courses--courses, in which they could be given an even better opportunity to develop intellectually, and to examine the course subject matter in a more sustained, accumulative manner. What's worrisome is that the administration at the time assumed that students possessed only a child's taste for more stuff, and that students simply hankered after more "choice" for the sake of having more "choice." --As if students were mostly oblivious to pedagogical issues; as if having a "flexible" curriculum (whatever that means!) was more important than having an effective one. The administrators thus ignored the possibility that many students would, if given the chance, choose to take less courses of a longer duration, i.e., opt for less not more choice, and for perfectly sound pedagogical reasons. And this is not to discuss the professors who wanted to continue to teach and develop six-unit courses, knowing on the ground, so to speak, that, in specific circumstances, courses could be far better taught if taught over two terms. Students "want" or rather are claimed to want to be able to "choose from a wide menu" of courses--but the metaphor of the "menu" is telling, for it suggests the degree to which some administrators continue to view students as not only as consumers but consumers of the "big-eating" variety. In the very shape of its curricular offerings and exclusions, then, the university "teaches" students that "freedom" only means "choice," thereby neatly aligning itself with the logic of capital: as Zymunt Bauman says, in North America, "the vocation of the consumer means more choosing" (Work, Consumerism and the New Poor 30). I recall that one of the supposed arguments made at the time was this: what if a student found himself or herself in a six-unit course they did not "like"? That kind of scare-tactic is bogus at so many levels, not least because it infantilizes the student, because it assumes that students only ever experience teaching and learning rigidly in terms of the mating and clashing of "personalities." --As if difficulty in the classroom were a kind of bondage from which students automatically wanted emancipation. Let me just say that that's crap. Yet the "no six-unit course rule" still stands. Of course, structuring the curriculum of a program so that it accommodated a mix of three-unit and six-unit courses makes the administration of a program within a faculty more complicated. A case could and should be made, by students, teachers, and administrators, that such a mixture serves the interests of education, even if it is harder to manage. In other words, I rather think that the "no six-unit course rule" is an administrative convenience more than anything else.
I mention these things to underscore that courses don’t happen in a vacuum (although you would never know this, looking at the current evaluation forms), but in a larger administrative and curricular context that calls for sustained scrutiny by all the stakeholders, whether students, faculty, or administrators. As I’ve suggested, the current evaluation system atomizes the experience and the practice of education, isolating its otherwise subtly integrated parts, this, to prevent students—and faculty--from engaging teaching and learning as a complex whole. This atomization and cellularization of education, this strategic separation of all of its parts, prevents serious-minded, long term assessment of teaching and learning from happening; it immobilizes everyone, preventing a searching discussion of the scene of teaching from taking place. While we worry ourselves about whether students are "happy," when we encourage our students mostly to think about their education in terms of whether they are "happy" or not, we do our students and the whole educational project a grave injustice.
Now, if you are not tenured, if you are, for example, being considered for tenure or have a contractually limited appointment (and there are many, many such professors at McMaster), can you realistically go into the classroom actively eschewing popularity? Under these employment conditions, are you free to say to your students, "my goal is to make this classroom as intellectually unsettling as possible, and that you may well feel uncomfortable and impatient in reaction to this disruption in thinking?" Are you permitted to say or to teach in a way that in effect says "I am not really very interested in currying your favour or in being popular with you, not while we've got all these other pressing matters to unpack, namely the content of this course?" Not really, not while the evaluation of teaching that is sponsored by the university and embraced by some students remains tacitly and openly committed to evaluating education on the "grounds" of popularity. For tenured professors like myself, there is much more room to manoeuvre, and this is an enormous privilege that I recognize and treasure. Academic freedom, if there is such a thing, is for me therefore partly about having the freedom to be difficult and un-popular--and for my students in turn to be difficult, and to be less distracted by the question of the popularity of their professors. And there seems to be lots of students up to this challenge, thank goodness, although of course there are never enough. One result of this rethinking can be a complexification of this provisional distinction between thinking and feeling with which I am here working. As Jacques Derrida says, what he hopes to trigger in his students is a "passion for non-knowledge," by which he means an energetically feeling-full thinking of what cannot be reduced to mere facts or information or communication, i.e. to mere "knowledge" and to the simple transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. Wonderful! So this question of apathy speaks indirectly and directly to the different ways in which--and the degree to which--students, like professors, get "institutionalized," that is, caught up in what I described as the administrative logic of the university, pacified and normalized so that productive dissent becomes less and less interesting or possible. This doesn't relieve any of us, individually or collectively, from the responsibilities that we certainly have for our own educations. Yet understanding the nature and origins of "apathy," if that is what it is, is surely the first step towards digging ourselves out of this scene of indifference you so well evoke as a kind of seductive "grave." There are of course many different ways of activating dissent in an institutional context (each with its own problems), this, in part because what needs to be critiqued and reformulated is never one homogeneous thing, but often quite site specific. Remember what Foucault says: we must be careful not to fall into the trap of the "repressive hypothesis" when we are thinking otherwise about the structures and discourses in which we live, and breathe, and have our being. But when it comes to the course evaluation process in particular, I would say that dissent begins via a rigorous, shared, and joyful exploration of the conditions of university education. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is a given about university education: its protocols, its administrative structures, its origins, its disciplinary organizations, and most of all its futures. Grasping that fact is for me the first step towards understanding the burdensome, exhilarating, possibilizing weight of the responsibility that we bear for what we are and what we do in the university setting. Each time I hand out these deadening course evaluation forms, each time they are dutifully filled out, students and professors reproduce the pacified university rather than recreate it, make it new.
|Q - Activism (necessarily, I think) informs a good deal of what you teach concerning critical theory and our interaction with the world. To whom, or what, do we owe this responsibility of activism, or more specifically, of recreating our university?|
|A - "Activism," yes, but of course that is a term that is also for me always also a question. What is activism? Are there not activisms, in the plural? What are the limits to action, the motivations, the possible effects? Working in a complicated setting like an undergraduate programme in English or Health Studies (where I also teach) means posing these sorts of questions to oneself, to one's colleagues, and to one's students on an ongoing basis. At the heart of activism is the question of activism. To me these are not theoretical abstractions but very much a part of the lived experience, if I may use such a phrase, of being an educator, this, I might add, in a culture that often characterizes what we are doing on campus, students and professors alike, as uselessness itself, as in-activity itself, as the abstention from or incomprehension of action or what is deemed to be "true" or "effective" or "productive" action. You know from reading Schiller and Kant that what is of productive "use" has, since the German Enlightenment, been profoundly caught up with the question of the university, with the matter of the university's location in culture, its actions and activisms. Right away, though, I would find it very difficult to separate out the question of "activism" from the question of teaching. In a way that needs endlessly to be interrogated, teaching is action and activism.
For these reasons, by the way, I am especially supportive of research projects that affirm and interrogate the place of theory in intellectual work, and that reject as a matter of principle the anti-intellectual notion that it is opposed to or an evasion of "practice." "We theorize with every attentive look at the world," as Goethe argues. A "practice" that is said to be antithetical to theory is merely a fantasy of "practice" unsullied by reflection and analysis, including a thorough-going historical analysis. An historical analysis (which includes a sophisticated understanding of history and of historicisms) seems especially important when there is this unseemly pressure to act now, in and for an imagined "present;" this is a pressure that sometimes translates into an inability to focus on anything that isn't contemporary. The great Canadian theorist Tilottama Rajan reminds us to be wary of a certain recent trend in humanities teaching and research that "knows no future, nothing that is to come or unthought, because it knows no past except the very near past." This fear of history and fetishization of the present may be part of the basis for the popularity of a book like Hardt and Negri's Empire, which, although powerfully informative in many ways, relies rather too heavily on the notion that "practice" means the violent overcoming of "theory." The irony here is that today's "revolt against theory" (as David Simpson argues) has its historical antecedents in the conservative reaction to the French Revolution! We must act, but the question is always how, why, and for whom? Acting in the present and in the name of the undoubtedly urgent concerns of the present therefore begins with a judicious consideration of the past--a past that is not safely hidden in an archive but a past that actively disrupts the present and complacencies about the present. So in a certain way I would say that it is not theory that is opposed to practice but rather something closer to "history," and this includes a history of ideas and a history of actions. And this is not even to mention the need carefully to consider the histories of those who act, by which I mean the unknown depths and unthought contexts that inform the present to the precise degree that they exceed it, and that prevent us from ever simply living and acting in the present, without "theory." If we keep for the moment to the supposed theory vs. practice opposition, though, I would respond by saying that theory is a practice because it is a form of cultural work, and a centrally important form of cultural work at that. So I'm really disappointed in students and colleagues who make unargued claims against "theory" in the name of an imagined "practice" or "action," or who want to reduce "theory" to vaporous, vacuous, and inert "reflection" (as my own Department's website does!), the idea here being to contrast "theory" with what are imagined to be more virile, "active," and "substantial" forms of readerly and political "praxis." Among other deleterious effects, the allergy to "theory" serves the interest of those who would like to see the university devote itself to rather narrowly conceived notions of application, rationalization, and usefulness. Frankly, I'm never convinced by these sorts of vanguardisms, i.e. the coalescence of a group that summarily announces that it will be the protector of ideological, conceptual, or methodological chastity. These sorts of puritanisms are inherently authoritarian in nature (for example, the attachment to the myth of sheer practice at the expense of an imagined "intellectualism" feels derivatively Maoist to me...). I would say that, by rights, vanguardisms should not thrive in the university . . . if it weren't for the curious fact that the university appears to be one of those cultural locations in which vanguardisms so often find a happy home. Why is that, I wonder? What does it say about the university, and about the need to bring a sustained critique to bear on the university. I'm hardly alone in calling for universities to be more incredulous about themselves, and that labour might begin with questioning the privilege that is sometimes given to the fantasy of unmediated "practice" in a place that is otherwise committed to explorations and interventions made in the name of theory and in the name of thinking , and thus of making good on the right to ask questions, negotiate informing contexts, and imagine better futures. As for "practice" or "action," my sense is that there is , on the one hand, too little of it (for example, the university's strange paralysis when it comes to the critique of violence and the protest against war), and, on the other hand, too much of it, too many blind--because un-thought and un-considered--practices going on out there...and in here. In his recent book, Violence, Zizek's reminds us that the the great ideological illusion shaping the present is that the time for reflect ion doesn't exist : we are instead compelled to act now and are made to feel shameful if we don't. So for me the first step for university activists is to determine whether or to what degree any particular call for "action" or "practice" is i) positively , a desire to do justice or ii) negatively , a n allergy to thinking, including thinking about the all but invisible operation of ideologies that school us into feeling that "action" and "practice" are not only compulsory but self-evidently superior too and different from critical thinking. They may in fact be neither, but that is sometimes difficult to discern in a first-world environment that pervasively confuses actual emergencies and manufactured threats, real forms of socio-economic precarity and coercively pacifying forms of invented insecurity. So Derrida's advice seems to me to be entirely apposite: "Take your time, but be quick about it." That is to say, affirm the irreducible importance of thinking and acting but in ways that jettison the insistence that these two terms need to be normatively opposed. S o far as I can see, what passes for "activism" in the humanities right now expends a great deal of its energy creating what Orrin Wang smartly calls "an institutional amnesia about theory." You've got to ask yourself what is it about the sorts of questions that theory raises that makes it worthy of this kind of anxious forgetfulness by and within the university. And I don't need to look very far to see this repression in operation. My own department's website describes theory in what could only be described as laughably narrow terms, this, even though on the ground, as it were, our programs have a long history of complex and consequential theoretical work that is completely at odds with that pacifying description. My department seems able to describe its other laudable research and teaching interests quite well, but when it comes to theory it appears to suffer some sort of aphasia. It is as if the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster can't bring itself to acknowledge the capaciousness and the pedagogical effectiveness of theory--even though these are strengths and indeed futures of thought that many of us see every day in the work of colleagues and in our graduate and undergraduate classrooms.
But the problem of the question of theory and practice is wider than my own Department, and in those larger arenas it is certainly much more consequential too. To take one glaring example: to my knowledge, not one university president in Canada has spoken up about the role of the Canadian military in Afghanistan, about our country's putative "mission" there. About Afghanistan there is a resounding academic institutional silence, this, when of course, every move that the Canadian government takes in this war should be subject to sustained, vigorous scrutiny, criticism, and debate--a debate in which the universities should be playing a key role. It's troubling and sorrowful to me that McMaster doesn't in fact lead the way in criticizing the war in Afghanistan ("criticizing" doesn't necessarily mean being "against" the war, by the way, in the same way that "criticizing" the work of our students doesn't mean being "against" them). It's strange that we aren't taking a much bigger role in this discussion when McMaster is home to a Peace Studies program, and houses a significant collection of the papers of Bertrand Russell, the philosopher who above all went down in history as an activist and thinker opposed to war. If the university stands for anything, it stands for sustained political critique conducted in the name of peace, yet none of the senior administrations of our universities has stepped up and said, "look, it's our task to get a rigorous, far-reaching debate about Afghanistan under way. As public intellectuals committed to democracy and justice, let's lead by example by ensuring that we are not fighting a war overseas that isn't subjected to the most careful form of interrogation. Let us bring the considerable intellectual resources that the university can offer to bear on this war and upon those who are prosecuting it. Let us assume our sovereign critical obligation, as the primary locus of the critical public sphere, to widen the bandwidth of political discussion in this country, so that many more informed voices about the motivations, conduct, and consequences of this war abroad can be heard. --First task? Let us disrupt the assumption that all that one can say publically about the war can and must be reduced to collectivizing and jingoistic slogans like 'We love our troops' or "We support our troops." --Dismantle the unfounded assumption that the troops themselves only want to hear this expression of 'love,' and that they too don't want to see a sustained, frank discussion about what on earth we are doing in Afghanistan." In a recent Globe and Mail piece anticipating the return of the bodies of three more soldiers killed in action, readers are instructed thus: "Canadians will turn out to pay tribute." --As if we were being commanded to respond to these sorrowful deaths in one very particular way. Pay tribute...or else, the headline in effect says, its bullying intent drawing on a metaphor that, after all, evokes the non-negotiable payment of taxes--"tribute"--to Roman military overseers. But what if "paying tribute" meant responding to the war, getting involved in the war, in much less grimly calculating and more justly open-ended ways? I don't want to be held hostage to this war, or to journalistic affirmations of this war, and I believe that the universities could have a central role to play in ensuring that Canadians do a great deal more than pay tribute in the narrowly prescribed manner that continues to enthrall the media. With the senior administrations of the Canadian universities tellingly silent about the war, we witness yet another example of what Henry Giroux would call "the demise of public life."For example, it strikes me that Faculties of Humanities all over the country should have subjected political leaders like Michael Ignatieff to careful, intelligent scrutiny. Because Ignatieff returned to Canada for the sole purpose of becoming Prime Minister, the universities should have taken and created every opportunity to draw attention to the man's political commitments regarding war: his enthusiastic support of President Bush's reckless foreign policy of American "exceptionalism," his unapologetic advocacy of the American assault on Iraq, his unwillingness unequivocally to reject the torture of detainees, his claim that "we" must "fight evil with evil," and finally his cynical self-justification, after everything went wrong in Iraq, that he had only espoused these positions because he was living a sheltered life at Harvard, and so didn't know better--quite deliberately forgetting that many of his colleagues at American universities--not to mention Canadian universities--were vocal opponents of the war and of the Bush administration's post 9/11 foreign and domestic policies.
This last point is especially galling, but reminds us that universities are very complicated places, and can harbour self-exculpatory thoughtlessness as well as vigorous critical thinking. Canadian universities missed an opportunity to become much more pertinent political actors when they avoided vetting Ignatieff's candidacy, starting with a careful examination of his recent political history. It was as if after he crossed the border and returned to Canada, all was forgiven. Revealingly enough, it is American academics who lead the way here, not Canadians. The American scholar, David Simpson, is perhaps the most illuminating case in point. His reasoned but very pointed critique of Ignatieff's politics--developed in his book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration--made no impact in Canadian discussions of Ignatieff's leadership abilities. It was if what he said and did in America about the post 9/11 world stayed in America. The fact that Ignatieff's position on torture and on prosecuting an indefensible war didn't feature as part of his rise to power (and his subsequent demise) in Canada is I think revealing: Canadians are not yet willing or able to make the question of the war and of questioning war a prominent feature of political life. I worry about that silence for lots of reasons, not least because the Canadian men and women who are most directly impacted by our war policy are of the same generation as most of my undergraduate students. Youth unemployment in the country is about twice the national average, but if you are willing and able, there's always a job for you fighting in Afghanistan. The universities could help change all that, by querying the country's indifference to peace and to electing citizens openly committed to peace. Now a professor at the University of Toronto, Ignatieff has in fact recently argued against the deleterious effects, at home and abroad, of American foreign policy, but what concerns me is that he was completely unable to make that important case when he was a politician, i.e. when he was asking for your vote. Again, no one calls him on this unsteadiness: as an American academic, he championed American exceptionalism; as a Canadian academic, he criticizes a post 9/11 world in which the state has abdicated its primary responsibilities. Very strange. My point is this: There is no guarantee that the professoriate will offer a consistent and vigorous critique of war. How could there be? Yet who better than the universities to give a voice to youth, and to encourage them to speak out against being compelled to kill or be killed in wars for which no reasonable explanation has been provided?
By abrogating our responsibility to debate the war and the advocates of war, whether within or without the university, we've left journalists to do most of that sort of interrogative work, and for the most part, they've done a very poor job indeed. (One clear exception would be the Toronto Star's Haroon Siddiqui, who recently pointed out that Ignatieff's "murky past" calls for scrutiny, now more than ever.) Or we leave discussion of the war to the defence lobby groups (for example, the Conference of Defence Associations Institute or the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute), whose understanding of the war is, well, let us say, less than complicated. Now, Steven Staples, the president of the Rideau Institute, a defence and foreign policy research and advocacy group based in Ottawa, has recently (Globe & Mail,March, 2010) said that "Canada is right to end its military mission in Afghanistan," since "the war in Afghanistan has no military solution." Okay, that's a good start, albeit way too little and too late. But my question is this: Why do Canadian universities, and the Canadian public of which they are after all an important part, wait passively for these "autonomous" research institutes and advocacy groups to make pronouncements about the war? This division of labour, in which our responsibilities as public intellectuals are left to more or less private groups "outside" of our public universities, strikes me as thoughtless and dangerous. It threatens to isolate universities more than they already are from the democratic processes of the country. It contributes to a generalized belief in the irrelevancy of the university when it comes to broaching and discussing broadly significant public issues like whether Canada should continue fighting a war that cannot be won. And as the 2008 federal election campaign has taught us, we cannot count on the leaders of the federal political parties to be making the war or our foreign policy a central point of discussion. Instead, we're being told to think "green" and to worry about carbon-taxes. Apparently, it is easier to imagine a future ecological catastrophe than to act upon the question of justice and non-violence in the world today, or to envision a profound change in our current foreign policies. The university could and should have a key role in turning the conversation towards what matters, not relying upon our political leaders to tell us what matters. -- Not that global-warming isn't important; but the university's function here is to help Canadians grasp the degree to which the "green" question is also being made to operate as a distraction from other pressing issues--the life and death of soldiers and civilians on the ground in Afghanistan, the inability of Canadians to engage in a rigorous debate about why we are in Afghanistan, or what we can expect and cannot expect to accomplish there, for example. We should be talking about Afghanistan all the time in the university. For example, we should be loudly proclaiming our disgust with Canada's horrific treatment of Omar Khadr, and take a stand against the fact that we, the globe's putative "peace-keepers," have willingly tortured one of our own citizens, and a child at that, preferring victor's "justice" to the rule of law . . . but sadly there is no sign of that happening in any substantive or effective way, either now or in the foreseeable future.
As an advocate for peace and as an unrelenting critic of war as an instrument of statecraft, the Canadian university should similarly be playing a hugely significant role in helping Canadians understand why we are at war, and to demand that our elected public servants actually serve the public good, and speak honestly, frankly, and in extraordinary detail about the nature and the failure of the country's mission there. In this instance, the answer to the pressing question-- why war? --is extremely complex, and for that reason the university--whose raison d'être is to have the courage to face complexity and to make arguments--is uniquely suited to responding, and, as per its teaching mission, to help as many other Canadians respond as possible. But let me say at least this: we are not in Afghanistan to keep the peace, or to save schoolchildren from the mutilating clutches of the Taliban, as wonderful as those goals are. Even if these were the bona fide reasons for being in Afghanistan, it is far from obvious that they are achievable. Indeed, with each passing month and year of the war, there is less and less evidence that any foreign army can play these sorts of roles in the region, and not for lack of trying. Why aren't the universities making this point in public? In the end, we are in this war to satisfy the unreasonable demands of the realpolitik of other countries. We are there because the United States believes it cannot afford, for different reasons, to destabilize either Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Our collective dependence on middle east oil makes undermining Saudi Wahabi fundamentalism seem impossible. American unwillingness and inability to refuse the fantasies of the governing military elite in Pakistan means that U.S. remains in Afghanistan, trying, without success, to make war there do the work of diplomacy elsewhere. And Canada goes blithely along, keeping the peace with America by waging war in Afghanistan. Families continue to bury their dead both here and in Afghanistan, with no sign of any sustained critical debate about the war. Enormous sums of money are spent in a conflict whose escalating violence worsens the nation's geopolitical standing in the world. The logic of militarism now feels unassailable, but the sobering truth is that is partly because the Canadian university has let it become so. And it gets worse. Taxpayers are now footing the nine billion dollar bill for fighter planes whose purpose the federal government can't be bothered to explain. These killing machines are their own reason for being. Yet the inextinguishable promise of the universities is that they remain the one place in the culture where nothing, properly speaking, should go without saying. So let us take up our responsibilities and weigh in: Why are we in Afghanistan? Why do we arm ourselves? What do we live in a culture that finds it so difficult to ask these questions and to demand better answers? Why does the university risk marginalizing itself even further by failing to take the lead, modelling an interrogative spirit in the name of the public good and in the name of peace.
"Can the university stand for peace?" My colleague, Dr. Susan Searls Giroux, asks this very question in her new book on the state of contemporary academe: we know, or we should know what the resounding answer to that question is, but as she points out in a series of brilliant arguments, it isn't at all obvious that the university is meeting it deepest and most consequential obligations here. "Can the university stand for peace?" How I'd love to see that query written in bold letters over the entrance to every department in the Faculty of Humanities! The federal granting agencies like to talk about making university research more "accountable" to the needs of the Canadian public: I never know exactly what they mean by that. But regarding Afghanistan , Canadian universities could indeed meet their central responsibility, and that is to ensure that a much more wide-ranging and critically robust debate was taking place about why we are fighting this war. To be fair, hints of such a discussion exist. For example, the Peace Studies Program at McMaster hosts the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence. That's a good start, but it is only a start. The very idea of the university should be coincident with nonviolence, and with a publically declared commitment to nonviolence. Rather than being the concern of a particular program at McMaster, no matter how well-meaning that program is, the university should be more broadly involving Canadians in a difficult debate about making war.
Instead of having that kind of debate we get the mutual denunciations and media frenzy swirling around Ann Coulter's cancelled visit to the University of Ottawa. All the mostly uninformed talk about "free speech" in this instance (I say, "uninformed" because so many journalists wrongly assume that Canada fetishizes or should fetishize "First Amendment rights," forgetting that the Canadian legal-constitutional framework is fundamentally different from the American one, precisely around the relationship between equality rights and free speech) masks the degree to which Canadian universities has effectively censored themselves about the war. The University of Ottawa worries itself silly about what Ann Coulter might or might not say, while avoiding the altogether a far more consequential responsibility, and that is creating a space where a serious and agonized discussion about the war and about similarly significant matters could take place. Such a discussion would begin with a frank analysis of the university's complicity in evading the matter of questioning the war, and of its role as scene of public pedagogy or education about the meanings and practices of democracy. But like I say, in place of that good work, and as a way of escaping from the responsibilities of conducting that good work, we find ourselves mesmerized by the minoritizing spectacle of Ann Coulter, and the putative "violation" of her rights. Of course, the media eats all this up, putting the whole thing into the service of further marginalizing and delegitimating the university. Expansive discussions about the role of public intellectuals in democratic life get overwritten by pundits who bleat about our universities becoming "finishing schools in political correctness" (as Ian Hunter complains in the Globe & Mail). Moreover, while we worry about--and are earnestly instructed to worry about-- Ann Coulter's "free speech" rights, we entirely miss discussing the censoring and delegitimizing functions of the Conservative government's foreign policy--for example, its cynical indifference to the recent Supreme Court ruling about the torture and incarceration of the child-soldier, Omar Khadr, or its attempt to isolate and demonize Richard Colvin, the diplomat who has tried to cast a critical light on the unjust treatment of Afghan detainees. The same media outlet that condemns the university for "silencing" Coulter simultaneously denounces academics at the University of Regina for criticizing the war in Afghanistan and for trying to mark the university as a public space that dissents from the militarization of Canadian society and politics. (See An Open Letter to President Vianne Timmons) That small, rare, but significant attempt to bring Canadians into political consciousness about the question of the war, that relatively minor act of resistance to the status quo, is characterized by the Globe's editors as an example of "the pervasive and doctrinaire leftist analysis of the mission in Afghanistan" (Globe & Mail 27 March 2010). Pervasive? I wish! What is in fact pervasive is the media's anxiously over-going defence of Coulter, and its denunciation of the most modest signs of dissent in the intellectual public sphere. But here's the point I really want to make: What is pervasive is the reduction of politics today to the simple matter of ensuring that blow-hards can say stupid things, as if Canadians had entirely discharged their political responsibilities by making sure that the Coulter's of the world have their say and, as important, are seen to have had their say at the university. But of course what we need is a much more robust, critical, heterogeneous, and exploratory idea of universities and of democratic politics, a much thicker notion of political participation and political action than merely congratulating ourselves for "protecting" hateful speech and castigating the universities for not "protecting" it. That work-to-come begins with a frank analysis of the larger contexts, including the militarized contexts, that shape what gets said and done in this country--and thus what is left unsaid and prevented from happening. I think that it is so telling that the University of Regina professors that attempted to conduct such work were instantly dismissed as "doctrinaire," when of course defending Coulter as an aggrieved victim is the more obvious example of dogmatic thinking. What is "doctrinaire," and thus dangerous, is being told that a democracy demonstrates its strengths by narrowing politics to a matter of ensuring that Coulter can say the hateful and irrational things that she does. What is "doctrinaire" here is aggressively dispensing with a broader understanding of politics that would include a serious-minded discussion of our slavish adherence to what Henry Giroux calls a "culture of cruelty"--our strange investment in shoring up a savage and atomized social landscape where the militarization of the country, which includes the transformation of the military mission in Afghanistan into a dauntless adventure and a "good war," a war that is never to be gainsaid and especially not by the university, feeds into the desire to protect Coulter's publically endorsed fantasies about the eradication of the Muslim world. Thoughtlessly affirming a "culture of cruelty" amounts to the eradication of a genuinely political life. It is a desolate and desolating place where military violence is characterized as "heroic," and where protecting forms of palpable discursive violence--of the kind that has made Coulter fabulously wealthy--is characterized as a form of "bravery" in the face of university "cowardice." Nowhere is there a sustained discussion about the public good, and about our mutual responsibilities in working towards a more democratic and just future. For a fuller discussion of this question, I invite you to consider my op-ed piece in Truthout, Ann Coulter and Blowhard Politics: Canadian Universities and the War on Thought. What I think is revealing is that when I shared my argument with the graduate and undergraduate student unions at the University of Ottawa, as well as with the student newspaper at the same university, no one bothered to respond, or even acknowledge my email. My guess is that these organizations have come to view the Coulter debacle as toxic rather than an occasion to take a stand against the war on thought and to move the discussion away from this bogus question of "free speech." Same thing with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the organization that is supposedly dedicated to fostering a dialogue about the university's responsibilities--but an organization that had the gall to censure the Provost at the University of Ottawa for his sending his principled and welcoming letter to Coulter. All of this to point out that some of the university's most thoughtless denunciations and fearful silences can and do emanate from within the university.
But to press on to your very difficult question about responsibility. I balk at the question's understated complexity and density, as I do at the fact that the answer is at once patently obvious and irreducibly hidden. I could approach this question, always warily, from lots of different angles, but let me just say this. The university--which is more than a place, more than a single institution--is to my mind pervasively and scintillatingly the site of multiple, irrefutable responsibilities, very much a creature dwelling in that extraordinary space between what is and what ought to be. Teaching responsibly, with responsibility in mind, with responsibility as the question that quickens one's thoughts and efforts as a teacher, is one centrally important example. I'm hardly alone in saying that teaching responsibly means, among other things, modelling a responsible relationship to knowledge--for instance, a relationship that refuses to "know" in advance what a thing is. As I've said, one must have and teach what Derrida calls a "passion for non-knowledge," an abiding respect for the incalculable, and for the ways in which the incalculable makes knowledge possible. Anyone who teaches and anyone who is being taught--these are often the same person, at the same moment--knows first hand the importance that the incalculable and the unforseen plays in the classroom...and knows too what deadening irresponsibility ensues when teaching is confused with mere calculation, with the pretense of having grasped and transmitted the "truth" of a thing. One of the things that I worry about as the new programme in communication gets off the ground here in the Faculty of Humanities is that too little attention will be paid to the constitutive roles that the incalculable, the incommunicable, play in communication, not least communication as it happens at the university. The classroom and the university are not, or not merely, spaces of communicative rationality, and I think that it is irresponsible to proceed as if they were. But neither is the classroom a place of possessive individualism; I'm not interested in encouraging students, as a recent recruitment campaign at Western puts it, to "Major in Yourself." Neither am I interested in helping students create thirty second commercials about their "personal brand," which is what the University of Maryland is currently doing in a mad attempt to make its humanities degrees more "relevant" or "useful" to its graduating students. Let's not say anything here about the obvious problems that come from making selfishness the object of an academic pursuit, as if the university were merely a kind of elaborate self-help group, a gated community (as my friend and colleague Henry Giroux has recently put it), a marketing agency, or worse, a training facility for "freedom fighters" in the market's war of all against all. At all costs, let us avoid encouraging students to privatize themselves as mere "brands." Viewing themselves merely as gadgets in a marketplace, these students are given permission to withdraw at a safe distance from the to and fro of their public responsibilities, becoming spectators of civic life rather than active participants in it. Let us instead create citizens possessing intellectual strengths to be respected rather than app's to be sold off to the highest bidder. Let's reject out of hand the university that affirms the privatization of experience rather than seeking to expand and complicate what Kant well calls "the publicity of reason." For me, university is fundamentally about being-with-others--vivre ensemble, as Derrida says in a wonderful lecture he gave at the University of California-Santa Barbara--and, in effect, about "majoring" in the untenable experience of the other and of many others: new ideas, new ways of being in the world, new futures. Far from disabling action and activism these questions of refusal and passion and respect are precisely what summon us differently to our different responsibilities--they are what make the burden and the possibility of those responsibilities unavoidable. Teaching responsibility and teaching responsibly mean for me trying always to teach a responsibility towards the future, or rather, the futurity of the future, since it is only by abstaining from the belief that the future is known and knowable as such, that something like communication, politics, ethics, decision, action and activism can happen at all. As Giroux argues so pointedly, "Pedagogy always represents a commitment to the future, and it remains the task of educators to make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which the discourses of critique and possibility in conjunction with the values of reason, freedom and equality function to alter, as part of a broader democratic project the grounds upon which life is lived." So teaching responsibly also means talking about irresponsibility--whether towards oneself, others, and the future. Irresponsibility and responsibility haunt, activate, and threaten each other as each other's other. That being said, to me naturalisms, biologisms, all the ways in which, as Roland Barthes says, what is "historical" gets passed off as what is "natural," to me finding succour or an alibi in the ruses that teach that there is no further need of teaching, that there is no future in teaching or learning, in other words that there is no future, are fundamentally foreign to the task of the teacher and to the labour of the university.
|Q - One final question. Should Humanities students rule the world?|
|A - Without question! As long as "ruling the world" means thinking questioningly--i.e., thinking critically, responsibly, and imaginatively. At this particular historical moment, with everything that is happening in North Africa and in the Middle East, Humanities students are in a special place, bearing witness to the political aspirations and revolutionary toil of men and women their own age. McMaster University's cultural theorist and education scholar Henry Giroux argues that “Young people are one of the few causes left for reclaiming a future that does not imitate the present, a future that makes good on the promise of new models of human association and pedagogy” (“Academic Culture," 80). It's deeply moving to me to read these words at the precise moment in history in which the young people of Egypt (the majority of whose population is composed of youth) have formed solidarities to overthrow the sovereign power under which they have laboured all their lives. They have never known anything else but a world without a democratic public sphere, and yet they have proven themselves capable of creating one, and of inventing, as if out of nothing, “new models of human association.” We watch from afar and see them conduct their education in public, translating private worries into public concerns--a move, as Giroux says, that is the key to “educated hope.” What eventually comes of these dissenting ideas, put into vivid practice, remains to be seen. Anything can happen today and tomorrow in Cairo. Many things may in fact happen, not all of them necessarily just or democratic. But what bears emphasis at this moment, with President Mubarak's forced departure, and with Giroux’s words in our ears, is the example of Egyptian youth reclaiming a future that does not imitate the present. Students, teachers, labourers, trades-people, clerks, professionals, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers . . . youth from many different facets of Egyptian society have wagered everything on that future: their schooling, their jobs, their very lives. They work today with Egyptians who are older, and together these elements of Egyptian society form the kind of “intergenerational solidarity” that Giroux says is the birthright of youth everywhere. --An extraordinary example to behold, and in real time! But also more than to behold, for Egyptian youth have something to teach. Teens and young adults in Cairo in effect ask those of us living in Canada to reconsider what it is that prevents us from reclaiming our own futures: understandable fearfulness, in some cases, and cynical indifference, in others. The youth of Egypt remind us all that notwithstanding the grossly deracinated conditions into which they have been born, consequential forms of political agency are still worth striving for. The resignation of the brutal dictator under whose fearful regime they came of age proves the point as no other. To put it in the simplest of terms: if change is possible in Egypt, then surely it is possible elsewhere in the world . . . including here. The youth of Egypt are discerning students of their own past, and capacious teachers of their own future. Do we watch them as impassive spectators? Or do we make something of that complicated and still unfolding lesson . . . and take courage from the example of their pedagogy, given freely to the world, and at such an enormous cost?