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 Many, I’m sure, are introverted, shy, withdrawn, reluctant to speak up in a room full of strangers and a person of authority and risk their silent ridicule; yet others are victims of a bureaucratic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.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

On Avoiding An Embarrassing Meltdown In The Classroom

A week or so ago, I sensed trouble was afoot, that danger was brewing–pick your favored cliché–in my teaching work. I was growing steadily irritated, being driven to apoplexy by an insidious irritant: a student’s behavior had gotten under my skin. He could do nothing right; I found myself handing out imaginary dressing-downs in class, in my office; I experienced surges of irritation at the mere thought of my last interaction with him. I found myself avoiding eye-contact in the classroom for fear of experiencing a potentially debilitating wave of anger while trying to work through a passage of philosophical argumentation.

I was coming dangerously close to that most embarrassing of occurrences for a teacher: a public eruption of temper at a student.

In the fall of 1997, during my first semester of teaching philosophy–then as a graduate student–I had the misfortune of encountering three extremely loquacious students in my night class. Their ringleader, a loud young woman, conducted their chorus with cheekiness and verve; she cared little for the disturbance caused to the students around them. I sent several warnings and rebukes their way but to no avail; I sensed some defiance in their responses but did not push any further. Finally, one night, matters came to a head; their chattering broke out again as I wrote on the blackboard. My inevitable reprimand was now responded to with an insolent suggestion that I change my tone. To put matters proverbially, I lost my shit. I shouted–loudly–at the offending miscreant that she needed to change her ways; rather gratifyingly, even if only for an instant, she looked shell-shocked. As did the rest of the class. In the awkward silence that followed–that seemed to last forever–I went back to writing on the blackboard, desperately trying to recover my equanimity. After class ended, my student came to me in tears. I had humiliated her, shown her up. We talked for a few minutes; I explained my reaction as best as I could, pointing out to her that her group’s behavior was a distraction and disrespectful. She apologized, and then left.

Later, I realized I could have handled things differently; I could have asked her to stay back after class and discussed many of the same topics we did after my outburst.

Many years later, at Brooklyn College, I lost my temper at a student again. This time, in my office, in the course of a conversation where a grade grubbing conversation had taken a turn into the realm of the absurd–my interlocutor had told me that I had graded his paper too harshly a few seconds after informing me that he had prioritized another class’ exam and therefore had been unable to devote any time or energy to my writing assignment. From this, he concluded that I was being ‘unfair.’ My patience and mental reserves had been worn thin by days of petulant badgering; I jumped out of my chair in indignation as I angrily told him to stop wasting my time. Then, I had felt undignified; my student had been shocked and had taken a step back, appalled by this visible display of frustration and irritation on my part. (It’s a long story, but our relationship did not improve until after he had graduated.)

I dodged a bullet this time. I sent out an email to my classes in which I said a debriefing with me about the grades in the first paper of the semester was a mandatory requirement for all. One of the students to meet with me was the repeat offender; I sat him down, told him he needed to get his act together; he seemed genuinely concerned about the impression he was making, and promised to turn over a new leaf. I breathed a sigh of relief once our meeting was over. That feeling persists; the next few weeks will show whether it was justified or not.

A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.