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“Magnificent Wind:”* In Which The Radical Begins Receiving Excuses From Her Students Even Before The Term Begins

January 18, 2009, 3:49 pm

Yesterday I, and a number of other colleagues who work at Zenith and other colleges, began to receive a steady stream of emails from students. They said some version of the following: “Hey, Professor, I am going to Barack’s inauguration and won’t make it back in time for class on Wednesday afternoon. I am sure you support my presence at this historic event. Hope this is ok — let me know if it isn’t, (signed) Siouxsie Q.”** I had several crabby, middle-aged responses to the emails I received, including:

“Hay is for horses” (I had a kindergarten teacher back in 1964 who was fond of this one.)

“If I am not going to the inauguration because I have a prior commitment to be at school to advise you on Tuesday, and teach you on Wednesday, why shouldn’t you actually have some commitment to be there and receive these services?” As the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR), a font of wisdom on matters of playground justice, would say, “So who told you life was fair, Radical?” Point taken.

“In the twenty-four hours between the end of the swearing in ceremony (which you will be watching on a Jumbotron, simply another kind of TV) and my class at 1:10 the following day, you could get back from San Francisco, London, and perhaps even Moscow; you can certainly get back to my classroom from the District of Columbia, so actually you are staying so you can party all night and not get up at the crack of dawn to put your sorry, hungover behind on public transportation.” Now this is something I could have sympathy for, as opposed to the claim that affordable and timely travel arrangements are impossible.

“Oh grow up Radical” (said to self) “Who gives a crap what they do? Particularly when it offers you a topic for a blog post?”

Then I sent an email to my class telling them that I expected to see them there at 1:10 sharp on Wednesday, and I went to a lovely dinner party where we talked about what a relief it was to finally hear a (prospective) cabinet member say, in so many words that water-boarding (aka, simulated drowning) “is torture.”

But I do wonder whether the Bush administration’s penchant for acting like mutual obligation was a waste of time and money, for telling obvious lies as if they were true, and pretending that bad decisions represented the only possible option, has infected all of us in some indefinable way that will take time to recover from, no matter what breed of dog the Obamas eventually adopt. As a much younger colleague from another institution who was at that dinner party agreed, this kind of exchange is common between teacher and student nowadays, at least among those of us who teach at elite private colleges. “I have to go to the inauguration, which unfortunately conflicts with your class,” is yet another version of, “I just found out I can’t be in class tomorrow because my parents want me to come to Paris for the weekend” (I mean, whose parents really tell them on Wednesday that they expect to see them at dinner in the Marais on Friday?) Or try this one: “I need to take the exam early because my dad’s travel agent bought me a non-refundable ticket to L.A. and I’m leaving the Tuesday before break.” But my favorite one is this. Every once in a while students at Zenith organize a campus strike to raise consciousness about some serious issue. Inevitably, I am then asked — well-known left-winger that I am — whether I would please cancel my class so that my students can go on “strike” and not have to worry that they will miss anything that will affect their final grades. Some of you, dear readers, might say that there are students less interested in the political issue at hand who have actually (I know this is gross, but I am going to say it) paid for that class, and might think I have an obligation to teach it if they plan to be there. This is one good point. But a second is that the point of a student strike is to interrupt business as usual, and it doesn’t work if business as usual has been, well, canceled, by lefty profs sympathetic to the cause.

All of these interactions have several common themes, in my view: powerlessness over one’s own schedule; an assumption that the activity to be substituted for the academic obligation is not a preference or choice, but an unavoidable conflict with fixed parameters; and the request that permission be granted, after the fact, so that the student can feel good about the choice to do something fun that displaces the obligations attendant to being in school. “I hope this is ok” is another way of saying “what kind of unjust person would you be to kick me out of a course I need for my major just because I went to DC to party my butt off at this unique, historical moment for partying?” I agree that probably would be too steep a penalty for missing the first day of class; but it would also be fair to let you know, that I know, that for $15, you can catch one of many Fung Wah Bus departures from the District of Columbia after 3 P.M. Tuesday. Tickets are still available!

I could kick them out of class if I wanted to, but they are banking on it that a reasonable person would not do such a thing. Looking on the bright side, it is even a compliment that I am perceived as a reasonable person. But the corollary to that, in my view, is that I should not be required to endorse their failure to meet their obligations to me; or to reassure them that meeting these obligations was clearly impossible, given the odds stacked against them. This last can be tricky when, for example, we all know that there are parents who are exactly so narcissistic that they make fixed, and expensive, plans without consulting their children at all; and that, because of various divorces, joint custody arrangements and remarriages, children who are not at all wealthy are buffeted by impossible scheduling demands from an early age and might just find it easier to submit to family demands. Yet, would not some of those parents be able to hear it, and even be impressed at the sign of new maturity, if Biff responded to the notice from the travel agent by saying: “Gee Dad, I’m so sorry you are going to have to change the ticket, but this economics midterm is just too important to me to screw it up. And it isn’t fair to the teacher to put her to the trouble of making up a new exam and setting up a proctor just for me. If you want me to pay the difference, I can, but next time, could you ask me?”

Part of what I would like to salvage from these encounters — which in the end, mean little in terms of a semester’s work — is what they have to teach us about the changing climate for instruction more generally, both in elite schools like mine and at schools where students are more highly conscious of the conditions by which hard-earned cash is exchanged for knowledge and credentials. And how do we talk about these things as faculty without trashing students, and in a way that examines our own responsibility to meet students where they are? Part of what is shifting dramatically, and what we do not know how to talk about except in the crudest, most reactive terms, is the notion that a college course represents some kind of fixed, but unspoken, contract between teacher (authority) and student (subject), in which the student is bound to a particular schedule, and a social relationship, that respects the traditional power imbalance between teacher and learner, grader and gradee. It is very rare that I find myself enforci
ng all the terms of my syllabus nowadays; but it is also rare that more than a few of my students feel bound by the terms of the syllabus, or that any expectation, great or small, cannot be altered to accommodate their “needs,” great or small. How, and why, these power relations between professors and students are shifting; what constitutes a successful negotiation about expectations between teacher and student; how electronic communication has facilitated and/or ameliorated those shifts and how we speak to each other about them; and how new expectations about power and authority play themselves out in daily, casual encounters between teachers and students — all of these things deserve a great deal more thought as we enter this bright and shining new day.

* According to Wikipedia, “Magnificent Wind” is a loose translation of “Fung Wah.” Perfect, no?

**This is an amalgam of several, surprisingly similar emails, received by me and other colleagues. The emails were so similar that I actually went to the Obama-Biden Transition Team web page to see if there was a standard excuse being made available to students skipping class to attend the inauguration.

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