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The Radical’s History Reviewed: When I Was Bad, I Was Horrid

January 8, 2009, 2:38 pm

Mostly because they have been linked by my history colleague Historiann, I have of late been drawn to the luridly enraged and cruelly hilarious posts at Rate Your Students. A blog response to the notorious RateMyProfessors.com, RYS, from my point of view, is a kind of academic pornography: it’s outrageous, and it relies on cruel caricatures of students that have enough truth in them to make them universally recognizable — the terrible students described at this blog can be found at a community college, an Ivy, or any stop in between. It doesn’t stop at pillorying undergraduates, but produces the occasional post that skewers graduate students for being whining, careless little piss-ants.

You will notice that RYS is not on the list of blogs I follow regularly (see widget on the left), but in fact I do follow it regularly from a bookmarked link in my Safari navbar. While there are many blogs I follow from bookmarks, RYS is there as the internet equivalent of sliding a dirty magazine between the mattress and the box spring. I don’t want to read it, but I do — or more accurately, I don’t want to want to read it. Every time I do it feels like the time a feminist colleague of mine urged me to read Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Duke: 1997): “It’s like a horrible traffic accident,” she said; “You can’t not look.”

Yet RYS, compelling as it is, reminds me that one characteristic of the blogosphere is a kind of self-righteous rage that often gets focused on students, colleagues, institutional politics, varsity athletics, or “the administration” — a rage that is more complex, surely, in its origins and context than whatever rant I am reading wants to admit to. Many of us are frustrated, insecure, overworked, under-rewarded, and uncertain about what the future will hold. We were told in graduate school that if we worked hard we would succeed, and we did work hard – so why are some of us teaching adjunct and some of us on a jet plane to a contract for a crossover narrative history of the Nixon presidency and a named chair? Why do some of us get up early and stay up late, publishing and teaching our hearts out in visiting positions, only to be told that we are “too far along” for the tenure-track assistant professor slot we would take despite our age and accomplishments to get our careers back on track? Why do some of us resolve every year to put our scholarship first, only to be loaded down with committee work, course overloads, and the excess grunt-work of the university?

Enter the clueless student who, through carelessness, narcissism, and often unconsciously rude and over-privileged behavior, becomes the fulcrum around which all of our rage and frustration about Planet College congeals. This is the student who disputes every grade below an A-, and tells you in the teaching evaluation that you have liberal bias; the student who walks in ten minutes late, misses every question you answered about the assignment that is due tomorrow, and expects you to repeat it all one-on-one in a special appointment outside office hours; the student who drinks pints of water in class, and then needs to leave abruptly in the middle of your lecture to refill the water bottle and, inevitably, go to the bathroom.

Well dear reader, I was once that student. Not always, or even most of the time, but sometimes. And like the girl with the curl, when I was bad I was horrid.

I was reminded of this because I was recently assigned the task of either disposing of several large boxes of personal papers (which we have hauled from home to home for almost twenty years) or finding a place to keep them other than the front hall of our otherwise gracious home. Clearly decisions needed to be made. Upon opening one box, I discovered an accordion file that contains what must be almost every college paper I wrote and — I kid you not — thirty notebooks full of lecture and seminar notes from the classes I took as an undergraduate at Oligarch University.

The courses I liked are obvious: “E. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels,” I scribbled on one notebook cover, after a hasty post-lecture conference with one professor. In a different color ink, there is a library call number: clearly I actually got this book out of the library and read it. Similarly, on the inside front leaf of the notebook for a course on the Third Republic, I noted advice given to me over a beer by one of my favorite professors: “Find Charles Tilly/could be critical to future.” Little did I know that fate would deliver Tilly and his wonderful wife Louise into my hands (actually me into theirs, but I am the hero of this story) when they took a position at the New School in New York. They, in turn, would invite me to join a proseminar where I spent a semester developing a dissertation on American bandit crime with Eric Hobsbawm. Wheels within wheels, man. You couldn’t make this up. And it all started with a professor who liked to sit down and have a drink with his students.

Then I pulled out a notebook from a political science course called “Culture, Class, Revolution and the Intellectual,” and one vivid — but not the only — blemish on my undergraduate past flashed before my eyes in nauseating detail. You see, we had virtually no advising at Oligarch, which means that the vast number of us chose the courses we took by a method that was governed by an entirely personal calculus. For example, my roommate and I, most semesters, signed up for a lecture course that required us to read novels: the Victorian novel, the Eighteenth Century Novel, the Modern American Novel. I was an English major, she was an Art major, but why did we sign up for these classes? Because we liked reading novels, and we liked to talk to each other about them. Duh. My other method was to sign up for courses that were either taught by people I knew to be good, or cool (a technique for making intellectual choices that my students at Zenith practice to this day), or courses that promised reading or insight on a hip topic that I knew nothing about. I also signed up for what seems now, for someone who became a twentieth century historian, an excessive number of courses in Renaissance literature, where my huge and unaccountable crush on the professor was entirely and fully satisfied by excelling at close readings of Spenser and his contemporaries week after week, and imagining how my insight and critical skills might ultimately lead to a romantic encounter with this scholar.

But until the fall of my junior year, at a certain point in every semester, I — not very consciously — decided which courses deserved my full attention (Spenser, for example) and which ones I could blow off. And I blew off, I’m afraid to say, more than enough courses to produce an undergraduate transcript that would raise fatal doubts about my capacity for graduate study were I to apply today.

“Culture, Class, Revolution and the Intellectual” was one of the courses I ultimately blew off. The early pages are promising: “Can intellectualism bridge the gap between intellectuals and reality?” I mused on September 13. “Look over last year’s notes on [Raymond] Aron.” The following week we read Camus’ The Rebel: “in the final analysis,” I wrote, “being an intellectual depends on autonomy — but is autonomy possible? Is money a practical problem?” I was so deep.

By the following week things had, imperceptibly perhaps, started to fall apart. Underneath a few sketchy ideas about the role of art and artists in a revolutionary movement (I told you I was deep), I had written to a classmate: “I heard in the dining hall that a freshman tried to kill himself in the seventh floor men’s room in Sterling Stacks last night. This is unsettling.” No shit, Sherlock. The following week, underneath disjointed scribbles about C. Wright Mills (“the activist intellectual,” “constant need for critique,” etc.), I wrote: “I’ve got to stay awake. This class has only ten people in it, and I’m falling asleep, about to embarrass myself. Three girls across the table are doing it too — one was really asleep for a while.” And later: “She’s done it again. I’m going to sleep, and it doesn’t help that the two girls next to her are yawning quite a bit. How embarrassing.”

Reading this ancient notebook, I was identifying entirely with the instructor, who I have to tell you, I do not remember at all. But she was a woman, teaching at Yale when there were almost no women teaching at Yale — I probably took courses from all of them, in fact. Dear God. What a monstrous little bastard I was. I turned the page to the following week’s session.

“Proposed Camp for Deposed Dictators,” I had written at the top of the page, not even bothering to note what the reading assignment was — had I done it? “Campers: Shah of Iran, Idi Amin, Somosa, Richard Nixon. Games campers will not be allowed to play: capture the flag, Monopoly. Books campers will not be allowed to read: How To Be Your Own Best Friend, The Good Soldier, Mad Magazine, Look Back in Anger. Required Reading: You Can’t Go Home Again.” Once an English major, always……

Oh, what a card I was. Two weeks later, I had clearly stopped listening in any meaningful way. Sketches of beatniks, gerbils and people throwing up alternated with the New York Times crossword puzzle carefully pasted into the notebook. Looking up occasionally with a feigned frown, I hoped to appear serious, present and engaged as I did battle with Eugene T. Maleska — in pen, thank you very much, just to prove how much confidence I had in my own brilliance, despite the fact that I was now learning nothing. Oh sure, there were occasional, feeble stabs at being engaged with the course. “For next week read How Much to Catalonia (?????),” and a page of notes labeled “preparation for oral report on Bakunin” (I gave an oral report on Bakunin?) The notebook ends in mid-December with a crude cartoon of a prisoner in a cage saying: “Help! I am trapped in this class and I almost laugh all the time it is so silly!”

Lucky for this professor that a semester must, eventually, come to an end, eh? And how lucky that this was prior to the routine use of teaching evaluations. And yet, having carefully documented all my misbehavior as if it was a rational response to her poor teaching, I don’t recall the professor ever treating me with the disrespect I clearly deserved, calling me out from behind the crossword puzzle, or taking revenge of any kind. Maybe she knew she wasn’t teaching well, or maybe there was more of a laconic attitude towards seminar work among Oligarch undergraduates than I recall and there was nothing she could do as we withdrew singly and as a group. Maybe the deadening, tortuous pace of this class was not something she felt she had much power over. Who knows?

Strangely, a quick look at my Oligarch transcript, also in the box, shows an A- for the course. Must have been the oral report on Bakunin.

As I say, I don’t remember this professor at all, which in a way is truly horrifying — only her last name survives on the outside of the notebook. If she remembers me, and wants to report me to RYS in an ex post facto kind of way, I think it would be fair. But I would like to close by remembering, very briefly, another class that I blew off: the first gay and lesbian studies course I ever took, taught by a famous gay poet, who we queer students all admired because he was handsome and witty and smart, was publicly involved with another famous gay poet, and appeared to be having the romantically perfect intellectual life that we all craved. Inexplicably however, or at least inexplicably to the youthful me, I did all the reading for this course but could sometimes not bring myself to actually go to class for a week or so at a time. Now, of course, it seems very clear that I was more than a little conflicted about my own sexuality, blah, blah, blah; and what that had to do with me taking the class in the first place, blah, blah, blah. But I worked very hard to compartmentalize that knowledge then because it would have interfered with my pose, which relied for its effect on a feigned indifference to the emotions and responsibilities felt by ordinary, boring people; my biting, sarcastic wit; and what I (tragically funny this) believed was my intellectual uniqueness.

At one point, when I had missed about two weeks of classes in a row, I ran into my professor on the street.

“Sorry I haven’t been in class,” I said in what I thought was a sophisticated and nonchalant way, “I’ve been very ill.” This professor, to my surprise and horror, turned around and fell into step with me, thus enhancing my discomfort. He encouraged me to talk in detail about the illness that had kept me home from class, day after day, and yet left me free to roam the streets only an hour or so after the most recent meeting. Quickly regaining my composure, I drew on some details of illnesses that I was, in fact, regularly plagued by, hinted at the possibility of a walking pneumonia, trips for chest x-rays and what have you. The more I talked about it, the more convinced I was that I had pulled myself back from the brink and was, in fact, on my way home from another tiring trip to Radiology.

“Hmmm,” he said, and stopped walking. “Well, let me give you a piece of advice. I don’t mind if you lie to me about why you aren’t coming to class. I expect it, really. But don’t lie to yourself. That’s a very bad habit to get into. See you next week.” And then he walked away, leaving a rather stunned and humiliated me behind. I didn’t miss any more classes.

I suppose there should be a moral to this story, but I don’t think there is: it’s probably unwise to draw morals f
rom partly digested snippets of one’s own life anyway. Speaking bluntly to students as if they were adults doesn’t always work, which I know better than anyone. In fact, it almost never works, because we are often speaking about something important that only time can reveal to them. But I do wonder about the motivations of those who convert their classroom experience to raging, mean, (often hilarious, I admit) posts on Rate Your Students. Often we have no idea what is going on behind the facades erected by students who use politeness and good behavior to fend us off while they collect their average or better than average grades. But we might learn something about good teaching from the students who fail, the ones who go out of their way to flout our authority. Or at the very least, we might see their rudeness as an opportunity to teach to more than the text once in a while. And if we understand their arrogance, their bravado, their selfishness, their narcissism and their cluelessness as critique or resistance, we might even gain some insight as to what we have at stake in our role as classroom authorities in the first place.

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