Teaching Today

Stop the Syllabus, I Want to Catch Up

The classrooms that we as professors have tried to create -- spaces where inequities are voiced and the status quo challenged -- are becoming reality, writes Lynn Cockett. The problem is we now represent that status quo.

May 16, 2017

The title of this piece is what I’ve been thinking all semester. But not as regards my work -- heck, feeling behind at work is a normal part of life. What I feel I can’t keep up with is the revolution. I realized it today, and I realized that I think I might understand how all those 20-year-old straight white dudes feel about being called out for being straight white dudes -- you know, ’cause they’re responsible for all the bad stuff?

I teach a course in which we talk about gender, work and identities. The course has evolved over the years since I first pitched it. One year I’ll drop the book about low-wage workers because I think we need more stuff about women climbing the corporate ladder. Another year I’ll add a book about cocktail waitresses because it tells us so much about how gendered our expectations of work are.

Bottom line: there’s never enough time to do everything that could possibly be covered.

Today in class, as we were talking about a book that deals with the way married couples handle the work at home when both members of the couple work outside the home, the students were totally uninterested. Someone was in the back cutting things out of construction paper. Someone else was letting f-bombs fly every time they opened their mouth. One student was upset that the book didn’t deal with disability, another that it didn’t cover gay and lesbian couples. A few were obviously focused on their laptops -- Facebooking or doing whatever they do on their computers.

This semester I have the most diverse class I’ve ever had in that room. Only 16 people, but we’ve got Asian-American, Vietnamese, black, white, children of immigrants, children of single moms, children who took care of their sick parents, gender nonconforming, Asperger’s, gay, bisexual, feminist, nonfeminist, science majors, business majors, communication majors. You name it -- this room is a bustling space of identities.

So when we got to the book on parenting, housework and career, I knew that its focus would be limited, and that’s why I’m supplementing it with material about trans folks. But it doesn’t seem to be good enough. I can tell that students are obviously unable to connect to the material. If it does not resonate for them personally, it is not working in the classroom. So what’s a teacher to do?

I’m so woefully unprepared to be able to speak to the experiences of my diverse classroom. When I invented this class 16 years ago, it was clearly a class about me: all the readings were about white, middle-class, heterosexual married women (or some approximation thereof). All the texts were written by white people, most of them male.

So here’s my dilemma: on the one hand, I want to get angry at these students. Give me a damn break! I’m learning, too, and I can’t keep up! And really, this is just theory -- come on! Just get the basic ideas and then apply the broad outlines to your own experience.

But on the other hand, I realize the problem is more with me. The classrooms that I’ve been trying to create -- spaces where inequities are voiced and dominant paradigms are challenged -- are coming true. People are, in fact, finding a voice. It’s a voice that’s challenging the status quo. And as “woke” as I might be, I represent that status quo. I’ve gotten what I wanted. I now teach in a space that is uncomfortable for all of us, not just my “underrepresented” or “marginalized” students. It’s uncomfortable for me, too. That discomfort is really scary. I haven’t been this far in over my theoretical head since I was a first-year grad student in 1996 and just staying one chapter ahead of the kids who were only a few years younger than I was.

And here I am -- midcareer. Almost 50. Fifty, gosh darn it, and I’m not an expert anymore. And I have a problem: no one in my field is doing the work I want to be able to offer to my students. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a new identity theory that hasn’t already been offered by the likes of great thinkers like the French philosophers and the Chicago School sociologists of the 1960s. Sure, we add contemporary stuff, but even then, as this course is concerned, all the work is being done by people who frankly look and live just like me.

I offer no solution here. I simply offer my story. The story is important because those of us who have had the expert position for so long and who have advocated for the addition of other voices to our curricula, our classrooms and our working spaces … well, we’ve got it. And we better darn well figure out how to live in this space.


Lynn Cockett is a professor of communication at Juniata College.


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