A Rarely Realized Classroom Ideal

Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)

It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.

The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good  discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.

Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.

 

 

Cussin’ In The Classroom

Of late, I’ve noticed that I have begun using more profanity in the classroom than I ever have previously in my teaching career. (Strictly speaking, I do not ‘use’ more profanity; I ‘mention’ it. That is, rather than using the word ‘fuck’ in a sentence like “This is a fucking crazy argument,” I mention it as in ‘Then someone might say, “Look, fuck it, I’m not going to obey the law.’ In the first case, I have used the word ‘fuck’ myself; in the second, I have quoted someone using it.) I do not exactly know why this is the case. For the first dozen or so years of my teaching career, I studiously eschewed mentioning profanity in the classroom; my style of teaching saw me stick pretty close to the assigned reading and the written notes I had prepared on it. Of late, my teaching has become more unstructured; I rely less on notes and more on the text (and on student responses to it); I consider most of the teaching in the classroom to happen when my students and I build on the textual material to explore applications of it in our daily lives. I supply more examples to my students now, and spend considerable time making them as elaborate as they need to be in order to illustrate the point I am trying to get across. I’m also more comfortable now in my skin as a teacher, more confident about the material I teach (even as many new existential doubts have also crept into my self-assessments of my intellectual and pedagogical worth.) These changes have, over a period of time, resulted in–when things are going well–a more informal classroom space.

This ‘loosening up’ has, I suspect, also loosened my tongue somewhat. I do not mind the tangents I go off on; I’m more inclined to be facetious in class, to invoke levity into its proceedings. Some of my students have told me that they quite enjoy my historical asides, the stories I tell to supply some historical context to a particular philosophical debate; this has encouraged me to be more discursive in my working through the material being discussed in a class. And so, I have found that often times, when constructing some imaginary conversation for an example, to illustrate some political or ethical issue, I will throw some profanity into the mix to make the reported conversation more dramatic, more realistic. I hope.

My students do not seem to mind; no one ever looks shocked. Most students occasionally snicker; there is a noticeable relaxation in the classroom atmosphere. (For some strange reason, this is also the case whenever the topic at hand invokes the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.) I suspect that to a certain extent, my language humanizes me for my students–for better or worse. I’m ‘distant’ from my students in many ways–this language brings me ‘closer’ to them, again, for better or worse. I do not think that I’m currying favor with my students by employing this language; it has come naturally to me as my classroom methods of interacting with students have changed. For what it is worth, I curse a lot in my conversations outside the classroom, so I’m slipping into a mode of discourse that comes naturally to me. About fucking time.

Talking About Natural Law With Children

Last Thursday, thanks to New York City public schools taking a ‘mid-winter break,’ my daughter accompanied me to Brooklyn College and sat in on two classes. My students, as might be expected, were friendly and welcoming; my daughter, for her part, conducted herself exceedingly well by taking a seat and occupying herself by drawing on a piece of paper and often, just paying attention to the class discussion. She did not interrupt me even once; and I only had to ask her to pipe down a bit when she began humming a little ditty to herself. After the second class–philosophy of law, which featured a discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory–had ended, I asked her what she thought the class was about. She replied, “it was about good and bad.” This was a pretty good answer, but things got better the next day.

On Friday, as we drove to gym for my workout and my daughter’s climbing session, I picked up the conversation again, asking my daughter what she made of the class discussion and whether she had found it interesting. She said she did; so I pressed on and the following conversation resulted:

“Let me ask you something. Would you always obey the law?”

“Yes”

“What if the law told you to do something bad?”

“I would do it.”

“Why? Why would you do something bad?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail.”

“You know, I’ve been to jail twice. For breaking the law.”

“Why?”

“Well, one time, I was angry with one country for attacking people and dropping bombs on them, so I went to their embassy and protested by lying down on the street. When the police told me to move, I didn’t, and so they arrested me and put me in jail for a day. Another time, I protested our university not paying the teachers enough money for their work, and I was arrested again for protesting in the same way.” [Strictly speaking this is a bad example of civil disobedience; I wasn’t breaking a law I thought unjust, rather, I was breaking a law to make a point about the unjustness of other actions.]

“Did they feed you in jail?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, so what do you think? Would you break the law if it told you to do something bad?”

“No.”

“Why not? The law is asking you to do something bad.”

“What if I was wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I was wrong, and it wasn’t bad, and the policeman put me in jail?”

“What if you were sure that you were being asked to do something bad?”

“Then I wouldn’t do it.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

“But isn’t breaking the law a bad thing?”

“Yes.”

“So, why are you breaking the law?”

“Because it’s asking me to do a bad thing.”

At this point, we were close to our turn-off for the gym and our parking spot, and so our conversation ended. A couple of interesting takeaways from it:

1. We see the social construction of a legal order here in the making; at the age of five, my daughter has already internalized the idea that breaking the law is a ‘bad thing’ and that bad things happen to those who break the law. She can also identify the enforcers of the law.  This has already created a normative hold on her; she was inclined to obey the law even if it asked her to do something bad because she was worried about the consequences.

2. My daughter displayed an interesting humility about her moral intuitions; she wasn’t sure of whether her thinking of some act as ‘bad’ was infallible. What if she was wrong about that judgment?

Note: My reporting of the conversation above might be a little off; I’m reproducing it from memory.

The Ones That ‘Get Away’

Every year, every semester, there they are: the barely visible, the unobtrusive, the ones who hardly register, who barely leave a trace.  There they are, every semester, filing into my classroom, sometimes staking out corner positions, sometimes not. (Sometimes they will attend, sometimes not.) They will not speak, they will show varying amounts of interest in classroom proceedings; they seem curiously bemused by, detached from, all that seems to be taking place around them. I try to reach out, sometimes with carrot, sometimes with stick. My success rates remain mixed. Every semester, some students come and go, and as finals and grading come and go too, I realize we could both say about each other, “I hardly knew ye.”

I do not think these students are just slackers or anything like that. Many, I’m sure, are introverted, shy, withdrawn, reluctant to speak up in a room full of strangers and a person of authority and risk their silent ridicule; yet others are victims of a bureaucratic arrangement which ensures that they have registered for a class because it was: a) an onerous degree requirement whose rationale they do not understand; b) an eligible elective that worked with their work-and-personal-and academic schedule. Whatever the reason, the student in question is present, and yet not.

Every semester, some measure of guilt and self-doubt with regards to this situation afflicts me: Did I try hard enough to reach out to the student concerned to find out how they were  finding the readings and class discussions? Did I just concern myself with the ‘easy cases’ and shrink from the true pedagogical challenge at hand? I feel this especially acutely because I know that on many occasions someone who has seemed quiet and distant all semester long will suddenly reveal, in the course of a one-on-one conversation in my office–perhaps following a paper review session or something like that–that great depths lurk beneath that placid exterior. Sometimes it is evidence of a sparked interest in, and actual engagement with, the readings and classroom discussion; sometimes a minor personal remark will help me realize why this student maintains the distance he or she does. On these kinds of occasions, I feel a flush of shame run through me for having thought unkindly about this human being–one as conflicted and confused as me.

Whatever the reason for this failure to establish communication and contact with my students, every semester ends with some melancholia and regret on my part. I will probably not see them again; they will go on their own way. We spent fourteen weeks together, meeting twice a week for seventy-five minutes, but we didn’t ‘get to know each other.’ I sense an opportunity lost, one never to return. I know I’m a finite being with finite resources of interest and energy–intellectual and emotional; sometimes I do not have enough to take on board all the challenges my student raise. I know that as a teacher, I’m supposed to play additional roles as well–an amateur therapist and social worker at times. Failure in those roles needn’t be an indictment of me as a teacher but I wonder if I fail in the basic human dimension of failing to show interest in those who come into contact with me for an extended period of time. It’s a thought I will take forward with me to the next semester, already visible on the horizon as this one winds down.

Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminist Jurisprudence In The Classroom

Next week, students in my Philosophy of Law class will read and discuss Catharine MacKinnon‘s ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence‘  (Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 635-658). MacKinnon’s writings have featured once before on my reading lists–for my graduate ‘Nature of Law’ seminar at the City University Graduate Center in 2015. She is always a teaching challenge: she is provocative, invariably evoking strong reactions from her readers, and often, a dense read. No matter what the class’ reaction to the assigned reading as students read it on their own, I’m reasonably hopeful that passages like the following will provoke discussion when we gather in the classroom:

Feminism does not begin with the premise that it is unpremised. It does not aspire to persuade an unpremised audience because there is no such audience. Its project is to uncover and claim as  valid the experience of women, the major content of which is the devalidation of women’s experience.

This defines our task not only because male dominance is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history, but because it is metaphysically nearly perfect. Its point of view is the standard for point-of-viewlessness, its particularity the meaning of universality. Its force is exercised as consent, its authority as participation, its supremacy as the paradigm of order, its  control as the definition of legitimacy. Feminism claims the voice of women’s silence, the sexuality of our eroticized desexualization, the fullness of “lack,” the centrality of our marginality and exclusion, the public nature of privacy, the presence of our absence. This approach is more complex than transgression, more transformative than transvaluation, deeper than mirror-imaged resistance, more affirmative than the negation of our negativity. It is neither materialist nor idealist; it is feminist. Neither the transcendence of liberalism nor the determination of materialism works for us. Idealism is too unreal; women’s inequality is enforced, so it cannot simply be thought out of existence, certainly not by us. Materialism is too real; women’s inequality has never not existed, so women’s equality never has. That is, the equality of women to men will not be scientifically provable until it is no longer necessary to do so. Women’s situation offers no outside to stand on or gaze at, no inside to escape to, too much urgency to wait, no place else to go, and nothing to use but the twisted tools that have been shoved down our throats. If feminism is revolutionary, this is why.

I hope to write here next week on the how the classroom discussion went.

Brooklyn College’s Disrepair And The Attack On Public Education

Over the past two weeks, I’ve sent the following emails to my departmental faculty list, complaining about the state of classrooms at Brooklyn College. First on Thursday, September 7, I wrote:

Once again, this semester, I’m teaching in 4145 and 4219 Boylan. These classrooms are a disgrace. The air conditioner is so loud we cannot hear each other in class, and if you switch them off, you swelter. Yesterday, while teaching in 4145 Boylan, there was loud construction going on elsewhere in the building; no one knew what was going on. It took two phone calls to get someone to respond. That consumed 30 minutes of my class time. Meanwhile the airconditioner was not working at all, and my students and I were sweating profusely. This happens every semester in these classrooms. This is a ludicrous situation.

Then, yesterday, after further aggravation, I sent an angrier email:

In my initial email I had forgotten to make notice of 3150 Boylan. That classroom has destroyed my Social Philosophy class this semester; every class is hijacked by the noisy generators/cooling units outside; if you close the windows, you have to have the AC on; if you have the AC on, we can’t hear each other; if you open the doors and windows it’s too noisy. My students were walking out to get water, fanning themselves, talking to each other, complaining; and they were right.  Discussing Arendt’s critique of Marx seemed besides the point.

I refuse to teach in that classroom. Either Brooklyn College changes my classroom, or I’m not teaching. Or we can just meet there and hang out for 100 minutes if the college insists. But I won’t be teaching. If this college cannot provide working conditions that meet some minimum standards they should refund our students their tuition, and shut down this disgrace.

I’m so livid right now; every class of mine is an exercise in futility.

Meanwhile on September 12th, my colleague in the Sociology Department, Carolina Bank Munoz, wrote (on her Facebook page):

In 2016 Brooklyn College had a 5 million dollar budget cut, in 2017, 8 million, and now in fiscal 2018 we are facing a 10 million dollar cut. This is simply unsustainable. [New York state’s governor Andrew] Cuomo is literally killing CUNY. Yet undergrad enrollments are 25% higher than last year.

Brooklyn College’s state is quite typical of the institutions of public education in this city (public schools included)–that includes other colleges at the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of college-level public education. Tuition continues to rise; administrator salaries continue to rise; the size and comfort of administrator offices grows; faculty share offices that are often equipped with printers that don’t have cartridges, but the place where the actual learning happens, where teachers and students meet continues to fall apart. The strategy being followed at CUNY is quite clear, has been for some time, and follows a pattern of declining public investment nationwide geared toward one goal: to make public education, like other public institutions, so broken, so unsustainable, that the only viable alternative will be their privatization, to be sold off to the highest bidding carpetbagger.

My options are limited: I’m reluctant to ask for an official room change for fear I will get a room that is worse–that might sound hard to believe but trust me, it’s possible; my class sizes–ranging from 25-30 students–is too large to allow the use of my office or the department lounge; and noise and commotion prevents the using of the school quad. I intend to escalate this confrontation by approaching the administration. I expect to be met with a shrugged shoulder and some muttering about ‘budgets.’

This is not the first time I’ve complained about CUNY classrooms. I did so last year following a New York Times article on the sad state of CUNY. Read my post–which also contains a rant about classrooms–and the New York Times article and weep if you care about public education and public institutions. My conclusion then is the same one I’ll draw today:

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.