John Holbo, editor of The Valve, has kindly invited me to participate in The Valve’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? book event, running all this month. I am pleased and flattered and a little overwhelmed to have been asked to contribute, but what tickles me most about this is the original list of participants that John sent to us, which included about twenty or so names that I’m pretty sure appear on those writers’ driver’s licenses, plus the following two:
The mysterious Bitch, Ph.D.
The mysterious Dr. Virago
Ooh, such august company! And to be as mysterious as Dr. B! Cool! (And for those still beating the dead horse of the pros and cons of blogging under a pseudonym, this is the main reason why I remain pseudonymous: because my pseudonym is cooler than my real name.)
But enough about me – on to the book event. First of all, for my non-academic readers, especially those who read no blogs other than mine, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education is by Michael Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor in Literature in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University, blogger extraordinaire at the currently titled Le Blogue Bérubé, public intellectual, postmodern literature and cultural studies scholar, father of an exceptional child, co-director of Disability Studies at Penn State, and also a really fast talker. (He has also been said by some to be a “whiz-bang manic trendy,” and he only half denies this.) One of the recurring topics of his blog (along with Theory Tuesdays and Arbitrary-But-Fun Fridays) and of his public (i.e., general, non-academic audience) writing is the attack on the academy by figures such as David Horowitz (“author” of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America) who claim that the preponderance of liberals on American campuses is both the result of active discrimination against conservatives in the academy and also a danger to American youth. Part of What’s Liberal directly addresses the claims of Horowitz and others, while part of the book takes the reader into Bérubé’s classroom with examples of just what happens when students disagree with him and with each other – with an emphasis on Bérubé’s areas of expertise, American literature and culture, and the (often poorly defined) bogey man of many a conservative commenter and blog troll: postmodernism. If you go to Bérubé’s blog, you’ll find reviews of the book listed in the sidebar; I don’t feel the need to add yet another one since a whole bunch of reviews ad infinitum would make a very boring book event for the Valvesters. So if you want a review, go check out those links.
Instead, I’ll do what I think this blog does best, which is, in part, to shamelessly use someone else’s writing as inspiration and general theme and provide my thoughts on the subject. Oh, and also, to talk about concrete examples of what goes on in my classroom and my work in order to give the world out there a sense of what it is assistant professors at regional, public, non-flagship universities do all day.
When I first read What’s Liberal, I thought: man, I *wish* my students were this combative, or at least questioning and argumentative, or even, at the very least, talkative! I spend so much of my energy and time in the classroom and in the preparation of my classes and assignments teaching my students how to be students in a liberal arts tradition, how to analyze, argue, discuss, think, use evidence, and write persuasively, that I don’t have much time or energy left to care whether their assumptions are coming from the left, right, center, or some bizarro-world point off the political map. So many of them would rather please their professors than argue with them, and so they often give tentative and brief answers that stop short of arguments, use “hedge phrases” like “Well, I don’t know if this is right,” or else keep quiet and save their energy for the graded stuff. And some of them are so exhausted from trying to take on full-time school on top of full-time work, that they have little energy left come class time. I find myself saying “Say more” a lot. And I’ll do it until the cows come home, and I’m also perfectly content with awkward silence, which is good, because I get it a lot. I’m trying to work on my assignments and course structure to get them to process more before class. Like I said: I spend a lot of time teaching them how to be students in a liberal arts tradition.
Likewise, when it comes to papers and other assignments, I think Bérubé has slightly higher expectations than I. He writes of his own grading practices:
All I ask is that their interpretations be plausible, and my criteria are lawyerly and austere. One, I read their essays to see how well they handle textual evidence, that is, how well they support whatever claims they make by reference to the material in front of them; and two, I want to know how well they anticipate and head off possible counterarguments. That’s it. Meet those two criteria in my classroom, and the field of interpretation is open.
If I had written that, it would look like this: All I ask is that they have an interpretation (instead of a summary), that they use textual evidence, that they make claims, that they realize that to be an argument their ideas must plausibly have counterarguments. That’s it. Meet those criteria in my classroom and I’ll be so happy I’ll cry tears of joy. Go beyond those criteria and make a persuasive argument with nuanced handling of the evidence in support of those claims and I’ll do my happy dance for you. And I don’t say that to be mean to my students; clearly they’re not getting this instruction before they get to my classes, and if I don’t insist on it, the problem will replicate itself, because many of these students are Education majors and will be the teachers of my future students. Scary.
Anyway, in my specialty field – medieval literature – my biggest problem is trying to get students not to be so “presentist,” not to read the texts only through the lens of their own worldview, or at least to recognize when they are doing so. Such presentism can come from any explicitly or implicitly political direction or it can be largely apolitical, as well. What such comments have in common is that they are usually so wildly off topic that I have to reign the students back in and get them to focus on the text again. They very well may perceive this as “bias,” and they’d be right: I’m biased towards discussing the literature in terms relevant to it, which may or may not be how we perceive it now, depending on the text and the terms of discussion. Let me give a few examples, from one of my medieval lit courses and also from the introductory course for the English major, in which the texts we explored ranged across British and American literature.
In one of my Chaucer courses, I once had an enthusiastic young woman who just loved to talk in my class, but usually on the level of comparing characters to celebrities or people she knows. (So, OK, I *do* sometimes have talkative students.) Anyway, one day we were talking about “The Miller’s Tale,” and I was asking students to describe the diction and imagery of the description of Alison at the beginning of the tale, and to tell me in what terms she was made appealing, to whom that would appeal, and what did that mean? Ms. Talkative shot up her hand. I called on her and she said: “I don’t think she’s appealing at all. She reminds me of all the bitchy pretty girls in high school who think just because they’re pretty they can do anything they want.” This was actually probably the smartest thing she ever said in my class and she was in many ways right or at least on the right track. But it was free-association argument, it wasn’t making its point with specific reference to the text, and it wasn’t answering the question I was asking at that point. And while I don’t mind when students jump ahead when I’m slowly building a reading or set of readings of a text, I also know that some students haven’t made the leap yet. And in this case, I think this student just got lucky. So I said what she was doing was reading “against the grain,” but to do that well, one has to establish what reading “with the grain” is. So I asked her, “Who finds those bitchy pretty girls appealing – or more important, to whom might this description of Alison appeal?” And then we got to talk about what the text was assuming about its audience or perhaps conveying about its teller, and about how and why different readers then and now might have different responses to such assumptions, and so on.
That kind of moment can stand in for the bulk of my classroom experience. Getting students away from free-association, impressionistic readings and getting them closer to the text is, I’d say, about 50% of what I do in the classroom. In the example above, the comment wasn’t expressly political on a Democrat-Republican scale, but it was implicitly about gender, and it was ultimately about the different subject positions of male and female readers, an idea developed by modern feminist critical practices but certainly not foreign to the Middle Ages. But then students don’t seem to balk when I talk about those things in Chaucer classes, since all I have to do is point to the Wife of Bath to show that Chaucer himself is interested in those very questions. One of the complaints the David Horowitzes of the world like to throw around is that liberal professors don’t stick to their subject of expertise, that they import their liberal ideas about gender, class, and race to their subjects. Quite the opposite, I think. My students are the ones most likely to veer off topic, to see the text in terms of their own world (and really, what average 18-22 year old isn’t “presentist”?); I’d add that that particular student who was implicitly making an argument about gendered behavior expectations and refusing the way the text wants us to desire Alison also happened to self-identify as a conservative Christian. So the relationship between politics and classroom subject for a student or a professor can be complicated and difficult to read. (I’ve written before, in fact, about how many of my students assume I, too, am a Christian because of the texts I teach and my insistence that we at least try to see them through their historical contexts.) And, of course, the complaint that gender, class, and race (and sexuality and disability and environmentalism and so on) and are inventions of the (post)modern world is not only patently false, but a rhetorical move to delegitimize such topics and concerns for being “newfangled.” Are there historical and cultural differences concerning the ways gender, class, race, etc., were constructed, defined, and perceived in different times and places? Absolutely! In fact, I believe that the study of the past through various disciplines is an intrinsic part of the liberal arts mission for the very reason that it means an encounter with ways of living, thinking, writing, knowing, and being that are often different from one’s own world. And I also believe one can’t really read a medieval text as a medieval person, but one can try to read like a medieval person, or at least imagine what that would be like – just as I was asking my student to imagine what a heterosexual guy (like the Miller telling the tale) might think of Alison or of the “bitchy pretty girls” and what that means for Alison’s function in the tale. But to think like someone else, students have to engage deeply with the texts and activate their sympathetic imaginations, and it’s only in doing so that the encounter with other ways of living and being happens. And so I spend at least half of my classroom time trying to get students to do that.
And sometimes, that means steering conservative students away from their free-association responses, too. In another classroom, we were discussing the opening scene of The Tempest – the storm scene in which the ship’s crew and the royal passengers are at odds over issues and sources of authority. The shipmen know how to sail, and therein lies their authority; the various kings and dukes think they have the authority of royalty and that the shipmen should follow their orders. And of course, they’re all equally subject to the power of nature. The problem is less about who has greater rank than about which kind and source of authority matters here, and that’s an interesting issue for the rest of the play. But one of my students was having none of it. He brought discussion to a halt with an awkward analogy to George Bush and Air Force One. Should George Bush, he asked, give over his authority as Commander in Chief to the pilot of Air Force One because the pilot says they’re headed into bad weather if they follow their intended route. For a second I was completely thrown off. But then I collected my senses and realized the question was completely irrelevant and anachronistic, since the idea of the head of state as Commander in Chief of the military wasn’t applicable to the scene in the text nor the era it was written in, and moreover, in the scene in question we had multiple heads of state on a non-royal vessel, so even if you held rigid authoritarian and monarchist beliefs, there’s still the question of who has sovereignty in that scene – another question viable throughout the play. And it’s the lesser ranking brothers of the monarchs who are making most of the fuss, anyway. And for the record, my student seemed satisfied with that. In fact, although he tended to dominate class discussion the rest of the semester, and occasionally had more off-the-wall comments, none was ever explicitly political again. My response to his comment – my deflection of it and redirection of it – had less to do with its politics than with its irrelevance, and perhaps he learned that from that moment. And again, it was the student who tried to get us off-topic and away from the text.
And at this point I have to say that’s the only example I’ve had of students being openly political in my classes, and I’ve been in the classroom for a dozen years now. And I’ve only ever gotten a single student evaluation in all those years that suggested that I graded based on a political bias. The vast majority of complaints about my grading are that I’m too hard. That’s it. One guy once, in twelve years and hundreds of students, said that if you weren’t a feminist you got a bad grade in my class. This was in a lower-division, general education literature course, and the texts we discussed ranged in time from the Anlgo-Saxon era to the 1980s, and included all sorts of texts from different historical, cultural, and political contexts. Of course, like many quirky comments, I knew exactly who it must have been, and why he wrote it. I had given him a B- (ooh! really bad grade!) on a paper in which he argued that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is pro-patriarchy, that it shows that John, the husband in it, is just trying to do his duty as a man and a husband. Now, for those of you who don’t know, The Yellow Wallpaper is a about as unsubtle a hit-them-over-the-head-with-your-message feminist text as they come. (OK, there are those who would argue with me on that point. It’s a complicated text, but I really wouldn’t call it subtle.) But the student had some good points. Certainly the character John thinks he’s doing what’s best and what’s right; that’s part of Gilman’s point – that good intentions can have terrible consequences if they rest on assumptions about the supposed natural weaknesses of women. So what I wrote in the comment was something along the lines of this: “You may have an argument here, but it’s badly executed. If you’re going to argue that an avowed feminist’s work is pro-patriarchy, you have to first recognize that that’s a counter-intuitive argument. And then you have to overwhelm your reader with evidence that the text undercuts its own purposes.” Perhaps I shouldn’t phrase comments in the conditional, because clearly he didn’t get that I was actually telling him how to make the argument he wanted to make, not saying “You can’t say that because it’s not feminist.” Sigh.
So what’s the point of this post of Bérubian length? In part, it’s the same point as the ‘classroom chapters’ of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts: that what goes on in the classroom is complex, both on the observable levels and in the unobservable motivations of students and professors. I also think that the more stories of what the classroom is like, the better, since popular culture is full of strange and silly images and narratives of the classroom (especially literature classrooms!), even without the stories of “liberal indoctrination.” That’s one of the values of those central chapters of What’s Liberal – they let you in on an extraordinary classroom experience with a master teacher (for the mere price of a book! Even for non-Pennsylvania residents!). As for me, I’m at best a journeyman, still perfecting my craft. But the more stories the better, for what really allows the myths and rumors and misunderstandings to flourish is the distance that most people have from their own college experiences, if they even had them. Anecdotal evidence, I know, doesn’t make good policy argument, but narrative is still a powerful tool for understanding the lives and minds of others. It’s why I do what I do – as a scholar and teacher, and also as a blogger.