Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Illusion of Shallowness

More on my month long absence later; suffice to say that I've been distracted. But I did pop my head up just long enough to respond to Sisyphus's post on anthologies. And in doing so, got into a familiar rhetorical spot: the one where I argue for a larger awareness of students' priorities, only to be told that others' refuse to coddle students. I'll say here that I don't know Dr. Koshary, and that she (oh god, I hope it's a she. like I said, I don't know him/her well enough to determine that) wasn't rude, abusive, or anything even resembling that. This post, then, is really not about her response, but rather the logic that underpins responses like that one.

One of the occupational hazards of teaching newer stuff, and using a lot of media (for lack of hazy identity concealing specifics), is that a common response to my classes and course content is "oh, the students must love that [eye roll]." It's a two-fer, really. Other faculty members assume A) that students immediately love the stuff that I'm teaching, and so automatically do the work and B) that there's no little to no thinking involved in doing the work. Unlike, for instance, the content of their courses, which students dislike initially, but has real relevance to the field/culture/canon, etc. On good days, this is infuriating, and on bad ones, it's depressing. Because here's the reality of what happens in my classroom: perhaps 2/3 of the students are really down with watching episodes of Sex in the City. But it's taken me years to figure out how to maneuver them through an analysis of the issues of race and class that come up in those episodes, and then to assess their own viewing practices, expectations, and see themselves as part of a larger target audience that shares and reproduces certain values. Is it the Miller's Tale? No. Is it an important set of critical thinking practices that they might use in their later lives? I like to think so. Is it easy? No. It's some of the most frustrating and difficult teaching that I do. Teaching theory is WAY easier (for me) than asking someone to critique and analyze her own predilections.

I suspect, however, that the dismissive response to the content of my courses is exacerbated by my particular pedagogical philosophy---and herein lies the logic that exists in responses like Dr. Koshary's. My take on students is this: it's helpful for me to remember that they have a number of different, competing priorities, and sometimes my class is not at the top of the list. It's not helpful because I operate with an "anything goes, it's okay with me if you don't do the work, feel free to come to class late and unprepared, have multiple absences, don't think hard" protocol. It's helpful because I don't get offended and pissed off when these things happen. They happen, there are consequences, and it all feels to me like students are making choices (consciously or unconsciously) that will determine how they move forward---in my class and in others'.

In Sisyphus's post, I linked this notion to that of her actual question, which was about course content, and perhaps that's why it all went south. But my other guiding pedagogical philosophy is this: it's okay--perhaps even advisable--to meet students where they are. Do I want all of my students to be able to read and understand complex Modernist novels or French feminist gender theory? Sure. That doesn't mean that I teach it to my first year students. As I think back over my last class of fyers, I can think of maybe two in the group who would have been able to get something out of, say, Frederic Jameson. But I would have to emphasize the "something" in that sentence. I'm not opposed to giving students content that's above their heads; but I find that it's a frustrating experience for me and them if they can't get any kind of handhold at all on the reading. What's the point of that? To show them that they're stupid? That they're bad readers? The majority of my students describe themselves this way on the first day of class---I don't have a significant need to prove it to them. They have four years to develop the skills they'll need to read and understand the kinds of work that specialists in their chosen fields read. And I hope to be part of that learning curve as they accumulate those skills.

So here's the connection that has always baffled me, although I wouldn't have thought about it in this way if I hadn't been trying so hard to make the connection clear in my own head: why is it that many of us instantaneously interpret "compassion" as "coddling"? Are there so few pedagogical models of "compassion" + "challenging"=learning that we're unable to conceptualize that idea?