Thursday, November 2, 2006

Liberalpalooza: Inside the Humanities Classroom

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.


Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ Doc! I need the Sparks Notes again. I'm not conservative or liberal, in fact, when the Big Bang finally collapses I will be at the very center of the tiny universe. But of course, that will make me very dense.

Have you Bob Dylan's new album "Modern Times"? He's my hero - besides the mysterious Doc V.

Dr. Virago said...

When you write about Berube, you have to write *like* Berube -- 3000 words minimum. :)

But of course, that will make me very dense.

Hee hee.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Greetings from Oklahoma. It's my first time posting here, but I was intrigued by the part of your post about the student who compared the Tempest to Bush and Air Force One. I'm wondering whether it's really that irrelevant. I don't agree with the student of course, but then I don't share his assumption that a Commander in Chief should have absolute, despotic powers. I also think his example isn't quite the same as the opening of the Tempest because a modern jet is not going to be much affected by bad weather in the same way an early modern ship is. However, the depiction of nobles in the opening of the Tempest out of their depth in the storm, with their authority called into question, could cast some light on the course of recent events and the way decisions were made to take certain courses of action (though I think Troilus and Cressida speaks much more closely to that). Could the Tempest also be arguing for a mixed monarchy and might that help us reflect on the way we want this country to go? If it's physically dangerous to take a certain route (in that it's got to be more than just "bad weather") then it would be stupid even for a Commander in Chief to insist on it. And in the contemporary world, we are also subject to nature (despite denying it by denying global warming, for instance), we are subject to actions and decisions by other people (despite denying it by believing our use of force will outdo other people's use of force). In other words, in this incoherent post, I'm wondering whether one could use the Tempest to question the conservative student's assumptions about contemporary politics. Given my own deeply conservative students, however, I would hesitate to make explicit analogies just so they don't be so defensive that they stop listening.

Karl Steel said...

I've read the book too, and I think this is a nice response to it. What D. Ho et al. don't seem to understand, or (more likely) willingly misrepresent, is what happens in the classroom. Speaking for myself, certain composition courses I've taught often have been, in fact, expressly political. This was years ago, and no doubt this happened because I had complete freedom to give them whatever writing assignments I wanted, and because I had to generate 2 assignments a week. Politics ended up as my default, a lot, because it's always on my mind. That said, since I've started teaching literature, direct political engagement with the present moment--whether from me or my students--happens so rarely that it might as well be never: but of course we talk about gender etc., because what else are we going to talk about? Scansion? Blech. In other words, my experience has been much like yours in that regard.

Your post joins Berube in showing D. Ho and his dupes what actually happens in classrooms, but what I really enjoyed about it are the gaps you filled in. Berube's classrooms are exceptional, not doubt because of his abilities, but also because of what resources he has (included the caliber of the students). I'm sure that's simply not going to be the case for most academics. You show what I imagine happens in most classrooms in colleges and universities. And, hell, even at my fancy school, even the grad seminars are clogged with students who talk only once or twice a semester.

Dr. Virago said...

Well hello, Anon from OK! Nice to hear from you. And I think you're right that i could've used The Tempest to reflect on current politics, although that student's particular hypothetical was not only irrelevant but also not very interesting. We *did* move from the general discussion of clashes of authorities (which actually began with the Wife of Bath prior to our getting to The Tempest) to the discussion of imperialism, and though I never explicitly made analogy to current events, our discussions certainly paralleled them. And we *explicitly* addressed the meta-critical question of whether we were "importing" "modern" post-colonial ideas into the text, and, even if we were (which is questionable), is there a place for that in the classroom. We read the George Will/Stephen Greenblatt debate (reprinted in the edition we were using) and I told them that Will was a political conservative as well as a cultural conservative and that while I didn't know Greenblatt's voting record, I was pretty sure he didn't vote for Republicans. And even laying all that on the table, my students -- even my vocal ones -- thought Greenblatt's argument was more convincing. Indeed, one of the most vocal supporters of Greenblatt's argument was the guy who piped up with the Air Force One hypothesis. (He was a funny guy with politics all over the map. I think he was still figuring out what he thought.) All of which is to say that while I didn't use the text for explicit analogies to current national politics, our discussion of it certainly weren't free of politics in general (including the gender politics...but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish). Of course -- it's the freakin' Tempest! :)

Which brings me to Karl's comment. If you take politics, race, class, gender, etc. out of literature all that's left is form. And god, how boring would it be if we stopped there? Even the New Critics didn't *stop* at form. (And for the record, I do teach scansion, but as a tool for building an analysis.) But I think that's what the Horowitzes of the world would like us to do. Or the Larry Mumpers -- whom Berube quoted as saying that what he thought was "off topic" or "controversial" material was "religion and politics." Oops, there goes religious studies and political science!! And there goes most of anything interesting that literature *says* about the world. And that's what they want, I swear. They'd like to do to the humanities and social sciences what Grover Norquist wanted to do to government: shrink it until it's small enough to drown in a bathtub. And they're getting help from the fools (often also political conservatives) who think public universities should exist only as technological and business training institutes and economic incubators for tech and manufacturing industries. If all we did in the classroom was "teach" form and facts that students regurgitated for multiple choice tests, then who would *want* to major in English or History or Political Science? And then the technocrats could easily brush us aside as "irrelevant." The two factions may not be working hand in hand, but they have the same goals. I'm starting to see a future where the only students who get a liberal arts education -- and therefore the only ones with a middle class and upper middle class future -- are the ones at the ivies and potted ivies and other prestigious institutions, while students like mine will have to be satisfied with job training that will limit their futures. This, I fear, is the future of higher ed in the US -- a return to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

And Karl, thanks for seeing that my post was a good extension of Berube into the more typical US college classroom. That was kind of its unstated purpose.

Karl Steel said...

And for the record, I do teach scansion, but as a tool for building an analysis

Good for you! If you're at Kzoo this year, I'll try to remember to ask you about how you teach it. I actually had a student turn in a really interesting paper recently in which scansion was central to her argument: she saw the 'artificiality' and fastidiousness of the Prioress in her prologue evidenced as well in the peculiar meter of her Tale. My only correction was that its rhyme royale is not less "natural" than heroic couplets,* but rather that I thought that the heroic couplets became an approximation of "natural" speech because they were the most common verse form in the CT. Since my students (like all first-year students, I'm sure, and 90% of even medieval graduate students) don't read Melibee, Thopas, or the Monk or Parson's Tale, I can get away with my comment w/out any qualifications...

So, all this is that for the first time ever, scansion was exciting: but good lord, imagine if that's all there was!

* I had to look up what these things were in order to write my comment!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr Virago,
Thanks for the reply. Partly my response grew out of my frustration that my (conservative) students don't see what seems self-evident to me, and my not knowing quite how to overcome that resistance--so as I read your post I was imagining myself in your position and while I could imagine how one could respond, I know I don't respond as brilliantly as I could imagine in real life. Sometimes they just say these off-the-wall things. Anyway, I hope you're enjoying the fall. There's been a little more color here this year than usual.
Anon from OK.

Dr. Virago said...

while I could imagine how one could respond, I know I don't respond as brilliantly as I could imagine in real life.

Sigh. That's the story of my teaching career! :)

Dr. Virago said...

And btw, Anon from OK, I really liked your reading of the play's relevance to current politics. Certainly all those issues that you point out pertain to both the play and to current events. And the more I think about your comment, the more the manipulation of nature in the play seems oh so "relevant" today.

Anonymous said...

Hi it's me again. I just want add that having just taught Troilus and Cressida, the relevance to contemporary politics is so much more acute. It's all about the Iraq war--the stasis, the thing about "staying the course", and the fact that Ajax (half-Trojan, half-Greek) and Achilles (in love with Priam's daughter) have divided loyalties (think House of Bush, House of Saud). I tried to really hit on these points, without actually saying Iraq. I know, I'm a coward--but I didn't want them to stop listening out of defensiveness. And how about the election results, huh? And Rumsfeld resigned! Now I hope the Dems will actually do something good.
Anon from OK

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, you're so right. I hadn't really thought of that before because I've never taught T&C (well, not the Shakespeare version, anyway!).

But you know what? I think *not* actually saying Iraq is pedagogically useful, especially in your situation, but even in a roomful of sons and daughters of union autoworkers (i.e., many of my students). Sometimes I get students to come to conclusions in contexts that are foreign and fresh to them -- medieval and early modern literature -- that they wouldn't make in areas where they're used to parroting their usual sources (parents, Fox news, or whatever). And maybe somewhere in their heads they're going "Hmmmm...." That, to me, is what teaching literature is often about.

luolin said...

This is a great post. The goals you have for your students' commments and written work are similar to mine (I don't get to the happy dance stage that often). I don't think I am as good at re-direction as you are, though.

Anonymous said...

"...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..."

Dear Dr. Virago,
I happened upon your blog while researching methods of teaching scansion, and I couldn't stop reading. Thanks for fighting the good fight--and I wanted to let you know that the rest of us are still fighting, too! I spent 2 years teaching at a major university before deciding to become a high school literature teacher, and I can tell you from experience that the above quotation is sadly true. No matter how hard I (and my colleagues) fight to get the kids to THINK rather than regurgitate something they gleaned from CliffsNotes, they seem to resist with a tenacity I've never seen in any other context. And the major complaint of high school teachers is that the students simply do NOT read enough to be experienced readers, writes, thinkers! For instance, I teach college preparatory juniors and when introducing them to Invisible Man, one boy claimed the book was too big and he'd never read it. Just to drive the point home, he bragged that he hadn't read a complete book in high school YET, and had no intention of doing so this year! And just so ther's no misunderstanding, this was a Caucasian student at a suburban high school in a relatively affluent middle/upper middle class suburb in Ohio. He lives with BOTH parents, who love, feed, and clothe him... so really, where is his animosity for reading and academics coming from? I don't know, but if you can shed any light, let me know.


PS: any cool ideas for teaching scansion you'd be willing to share would be GREATLY appreciated!