I Know What I Know

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I think it’s fixed. *crosses fingers*

Shelley and I have just returned from dinner with one of her former students. Nice people, all. Dinner was quite good. I even remarked upon our return home that this was the first time in a long time that I’ve been to a dinner party and left with a full belly.

Greg’s thoughts about teaching have had me thinking for most of the evening. This is not to say that I don’t do a great deal of thinking about teaching—I do—but this semester has raised a series of issues for me that I’m really not all that comfortable with. Here’s the skinny.

For the past two years, I worked as an assistant director of the Freshman Composition program (a kind of graduate student administrative position), and during that time I was heavily involved in the complete revision of our curriculum. While I’m happy that we’ve revised our curriculum away from the student-centered-personal-writing-toby-fulweiler-peter-elbow-we-devised- this-theory-in-the-1960s-and-70s-and-it-made-sense-then-but-doesn’t- really-do-anything-now-since-the-entire-attitude-of-our-students-has-changed mode of freshman composition, what we have moved to—rhetorical analysis of American historical and political documents, as well as of high-profile “current issues”—I have been asking one question all semester: what am I supposed to do if I don’t know anything about American history?

Everyone responds the same way: you know more than you think you do; you know more than they do; just do straight rhetorical analysis, etc. But the fact remains that I don’t know very much about American history.

I know, in terms of facts and dates and the like, much more about British history than I do American history. And in addition, I am a bit of an Anglophile, and so this means that when I encounter documents like the Declaration of Independence, I am inclined to take a a very pro-British stance on it. And I do. This is not to suggest that I am in favor of British colonialism (or any colonialism, for that matter). I’m not. I have, over the course of the semester, reminded my students that the British are very probably the absolute worst people to be colonized by (with the possible exception of Spain). I recite the litany of lost British colonies: America, India, Scotland,Ireland, Australia… (I know, I know, some of these are still members of the Empire, but come on….)

I don’t mean to get into an argument about whether or not the rebellion by the colonies was justified, which is where this seems to be headed.

And so this semester, I’ve been teaching what is an unabashedly political course. There is, quite simply, no way around it. Politics are going to come up.

I am uncomfortable with that. I expend a great deal of energy keeping my political opinions out of my classes. I realize that this is, of course, impossible, but I try. I really do. But this semester, I feel like I’ve been one of those instructors who’s been actively engaging in the political indoctrination of his students. I feel like I’ve been Lynne Cheney’s worst nightmare.

I know I haven’t. I know that the political points I’ve been making this semester have been merely a matter of convenience, and that if Al Gore had been in the White House, I’d have picked on him just as much as I picked on Bush. Not that I really picked on Bush all that much. The terrorist attacks (by the way, I am opposed to the phrase “terror attacks,” which seems to have become quite popular. Terror cannot attack you. It really can’t. It’s like saying “fear attacks,” which makes no sense, since its the reification of an emotion) didn’t help, since then I had a massive amount of propanagda smack in the middle of a unit of the course about propaganda. But the bizarre confluence of events this semester has forced me to think a great deal about the degree to which my own politics became a part of my teaching this semester in ways that they previously had not.

I am opposed to using courses to turn students to a specific political ideology. By this I mean that I am opposed to using a Freshman composition class to turn my students into liberals or leftists or whatever. I know that the very idea of a liberal education takes part in a political agenda. I know that the agenda is unavoidable. But I think that the use of the podium (especially by teachers of beginning college students) as a means of taking political advantage of impressionable young minds is, frankly, unethical.

By way of wrapping this ramble up, let me say this:

I begin my semesters with a little speech. I tell them this: “If you do not learn to recognize and understand the ways that language and images can be used to manipulate you, you will, for the rest of your life, be the victim of every politician and advertising agent you ever come into contact with.”

I believe this, and I believe this is the larger purpose of my course.

Current and future college freshmen and sophomores, if you happen to stumble across this little note, know this: the stupid, boring, first-year liberal arts courses (English, History, Political Science, Philosophy…whatever) have less to do with teaching you about history or English than they do with equipping you with the skills you’ll need to read the world around you, in the hope that when you go out into the world as a member of this monstrosity that we call a democracy, you will be able to make sound, reasoned, judgments about the choices available to you.

This is why I teach.

This is why I worry about my teaching.

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Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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