Awhile ago at a conference I read a paper to a dog. The subject of the paper was Clarice Lispector's great story, "The Crime of the Mathematics Professor," which is about dogs; the professor abandons his own, and subsequently buries another. So it was fitting that a dog would be in the audience. There were seven humans, including his owner, who was blind.
I don't know if the dog -- a beautiful, black, curly shepherd mix named Mark -- enjoyed the paper. Sprawled at his master's feet, he seemed to sleep the entire time. Yet he duly opened his eyes when I finished reading and the audience began clapping. I hoped he would give forth with a couple big barks. Maybe it was his first conference and he was unsure if a "woof" would be appropriate.
Dogs, after all, aren't normally seen in conference rooms. They aren't expected to join professional organizations, they aren't invited to give papers. Just so, they aren't welcome in the other major academic space: the classroom. A dog might be the object of knowledge (it turns out that the representation of animals is something of a hot topic at present) but it does not constitute a subject. Seeing eye-dogs aside, no dog in the United States to my knowledge either regularly attends or teaches a class.
Too bad. Years ago a dog wandered into my second-floor classroom late one morning, occasioning great delight among the students. "I gave him an A last semester," I remarked. Perhaps at these words delight lessened a bit. There are limits to the possible relations between ourselves and even the most familiar of animals, which reminds me that one of my above panelists was also named "Mark" and seemed uneasy to be in such nominative proximity to the dog.
Reading a paper to Mark (both of them) prompted me to try to recall other conference appearances of an animal in my experience. I could remember none. I do recall now the first time I saw a woman nursing a baby. (Evidently a proud assertion of womanly power; nowadays, it's more common to see the baby but not the nursing.) But of course babies are humans. Even though it could be argued that neither belongs in a conference room, each doesn't in quite different ways.
Back to the classroom: once a student told me that she had seen a classmate bring a snake to class. I never actually saw the snake. (Nor the student, for that matter.) So it's gone with nonhuman beings. With the exception of the one dog, whose name I never learned, my classroom for better or worse has been exclusively human. It seems idle to mention a few furtive cockroaches who scurried across the floor, a lizard or two immobile along various walls, or the odd disruptive bee who flew in through an open window.
No animals. What exactly could be at stake in this fact, other than yet another lamentable example of what animal rights people would term "species-ism?" Principally, two things. Each one illuminates the nature of the principal public spaces in which our professional lives are played out. Both abide according to a profound analogy to theatrical space. Nothing provokes this realization like the example of a dog in a classroom.
First, what is kept out of the classroom is just as decisive to what transpires there as what is admitted in. Indeed, the classroom can be conceived of as a site of constant struggle to get rid of things that don't belong -- cell phones, students missing from the roll, and so on. At the pedagogical, if not phenomenological, limit, animals certainly don't belong! And yet, when a dog strays in, what we discover is that it does belong, or rather, can be made to belong, affording amusement and even instruction to all, at least for a time.
I take my own instruction from a chapter, "The World on Stage," in Bert O. States's wonderful little book on theater, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. The dog on the stage (which was the original title of this chapter) is "a nearly perfect symptom of the cutting edge of theater, the bite that it takes into actuality in order to sustain itself in the dynamic order of its own ever-dying signs and images."
But of course, unlike the stage, the classroom is, alas, not nearly so dynamic. Its space is far more conservative. Too much "actuality," in the person of a dog, only defeats its purpose, which is ultimately intellectual rather than aesthetic.
Conference space is more theatrical. While the burden of the classroom is to keep out the amplitude or variety of conferences, conference sessions themselves are pleased to admit more of actuality -- people arriving late and leaving early, babies, and even dogs. Indeed, it seems very right for conference programs to include poetry readings, theatrical performances, or special lectures by stars right alongside the usual sessions. Back on campus, readings or lectures are more aligned with the one or two plays offered by the drama department each semester.
There is a second thing about the spectacle of the dog in the classroom that follows from the first: the inescapable, mysterious presence of what has been excluded from the classroom. Each semester we do battle anew not only with cell phones or individuals not on the roll but a whole host of other things, ranging from students in back who won't stop talking to construction noise right outside the window.
Classes in which everybody belongs on the roll and always raises her hand before speaking are a great blessing. Yet day by day or week by week these classes can also be a great bore. Citing Artaud, States writes of "a theater that brings us into phenomenal contact with what exists, or rather what it is possible to do, theatrically, with what exists." Pedagogically, by contrast, our classes do too little; there are days when everybody seems to suffer from what might be called phenomenological poverty. The rattling sound of a lawnmower outside seems momentarily welcome. A buzzing insect inside can seem numinous.
But the wagging tail of a dog? Conceived of in States as "at the lowest echelon of living things that come on stage tethered to the real world," why not a dog? What the stage does with this dog is immediately transform it into a "sign" (albeit a special, fascinating one, given the tether). What the classroom does with a dog, on the other hand, is to seek to banish it.
This is to be lamented. To lose "the real world" is too great a loss, which is why it is such a recurrent moment in education to bemoan the loss, however conceived. A dog constitutes one especially provocative example. I would not have the classroom become a kennel. But I would have the classroom be more like a stage, where dogs don't appear always under the sole sign of "disruption."
Our classrooms should be more like stages, because they already are theatrical in nature. They don't all aspire to be "cutting edge" (any more than all stage productions do). Yet signs of the correspondence between classroom and stage are everywhere, ranging from the "wardrobe" of students and teachers to the material presence of "props" and the role-governed nature of "dialogue."
Does the best teaching embrace this correspondence? Probably -- in all sorts of ways. I fret about my own teaching when I fear my own inner classroom has become too narrow, bent on excluding everything rather than doing something with anything, even students who leave "to go to the bathroom."
There are days when I wish a dog would come prancing or slobbering in. (I never imagine him growling; disruption is one thing, while danger is quite another.) There are times when the day's syllabus-authorized discourse needs to become more wayward. Especially when we have all been variously engaged in good behavior, what we can always use -- to continue with a distinction States makes -- is the shock of what the stage animal always gives: behavior only.
Perhaps back at the conference this is why Mark (the dog) moved me so. Not only was he incapable of obligatory "appreciation" of my paper. (It's almost impossible for a human being to merely "behave" at a conference or in a classroom.) He suggested possibilities I had never considered, such as reading the paper to an entire audience of dogs, or, perhaps better, listening to a paper on the same story read by a dog.
Silly? Of course. Yet such scenes might be hilarious in a play. The reason is not fundamentally different from why the sudden appearance of a dog in the classroom initially elicits laughter. A classroom is not the same thing as a conference room, but the difference dissolves when each is reborn, vividly, as a stage. In order to hasten this rebirth, I would have our classrooms go to the dogs.
Terry Caesar's last column was in praise of librarians.
The story goes that parents get their due once their children have children. The grown children find out about all the hard work and sacrifice it takes to be a parent, and then finally appreciate what their own parents went through.
Well, there’s promising news for teachers, too, from their educated “offspring” who go on to become teachers themselves. I got a big dose of this deferred payback recently when I became an assistant professor at a private urban university.
The transition from Ph.D. student to university professor was abrupt for me because I continued in my profession as a journalist during graduate school rather than working as a teaching assistant. My large, state university had no instruction in teaching, so I figured competence in the classroom just sort of came naturally to those of us who had studied and thought deeply within the discipline. I had assumptions about teaching based on my own experiences on the receiving end, which I realize now is kind of like judging what kind of writer you might be by the books you’ve read. I had the vague idea that I’d pass on my own enlightenment as a graduate student to a fairly receptive audience. I’ll pause here to give the experienced educators who are reading this a chance to stop laughing.
After just eight weeks with a full course load, it’s an understatement to say my thoughts about teaching have become more, well, focused. I find myself harking back to my own experience on the receiving end again, but this time as an undergraduate like the students I now teach.
I think what has taken me back are the blank stares, heads on desks, and absentees in my classroom. As I struggle with teaching in ways I wasn’t expecting, I guess I’m a bit defensive and feeling sorry for myself. I sometimes think I don’t deserve what I’m getting, just as my undergraduate professors didn’t deserve what I gave.
But it’s probably a good thing I’m thinking about my own bad behavior as an 18-to-20-year-old. The optimist battling these pessimistic feelings believes such memories might be a first step toward focusing on the students in this process, instead of myself. Like a transgressor at an AA meeting, I want to stand up and cleanse my soul, hopefully to get rid of the guilt I feel when I think of what I did to others, because now it’s happening to me. “Okay, okay, I get it,” I want to say to my professors of old. “I was a twit.”
I usually come to this confessional frame of mind at the end of each day as I trudge to my car toting my 60-pound bag of books, folders, oversize place cards (put on desks to learn students’ names as quickly as possible; novice teaching tip No. 8,709), DVDs, videos, laptop, cables, grant forms, research proposals, insulated coffee cup, and stacks of papers to grade. During this evening ritual, I conjure the image of myself sitting at a large, uncluttered writing desk, after plenty of rest and with unbounded time, to pick up a sharpened quill, dip it in ink, and pen a formal apology to those educators who had me in their classes at what was then Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La., from September 1971 to May 1975.
The letter reads something like this:
Dear Dr. Carroll, et al:
You probably don’t remember me, and it may really be too late at this point, but I wanted to write to tell you how sorry I am about the way I conducted myself in your classroom (and, in general, during my early college years, but I’ll limit this to academics).
If you’re still teaching, my hat goes off to you! If not, I hope you have been able to look back with satisfaction on your teaching career, despite my presence.
I know I’m not one of those students you might think about, or even still talk about, when searching your memory for a rewarding experience to help acknowledge all the hours and effort you put into your lectures and presentations. You probably gladly forgot my name the instant the semester was over.
I wanted to let you know, though, that it sometimes takes a long time for a student to appreciate what lessons he or she learns (as we know these days, we all have different learning styles!). As an educator myself now, I’m certainly learning mine.
While you might not recall my presence specifically, you do know me. I’m one of those who sat in the back of the room, avoided your eyes because I hadn’t read the material, and said little. If you made an effort to call on me, I deferred with a mumbled, “I don’t know.”
If you were the professor for the history class I had after physical education, I was the one who often fell asleep with my head on my desk, once even drooling on my notebook.
If you were my speech teacher, I was the one who came unprepared for my presentation and rambled beyond my 10-minute time limit by 15 minutes, never getting to the point.
If you were my English teacher, I never cracked the spine on Beowulf and I complained about my grade despite missing class regularly.
If you were my journalism adviser, I avoided doing my work for the news service during my designated hours, despite getting paid.
If you were my zoology professor, I got an A on that test because you happened to give the same one you had given two years before, and a friend of mine had a copy.
If it makes you feel any better, I’ve now had the experience of looking out on a sea of blank faces and wondering if I am the only one in the room who has read the material.
It might help to know that half my students in one course skipped class the meeting following the midterm, and half of another class acted like insolent 12-year-olds when they got Bs and A minuses on their tests.
So far, in my first semester, I’ve had four grandmothers die, six hospitalizations, countless numbers of colds and flu (flu season must have started in September this year), two cases of mono, three cases of sick friends who couldn’t get themselves to a doctor, and one honest “I overslept” for a 12:45 p.m. class.
Perhaps you can take comfort in the numerous times in my classes in which students’ heads have dropped and gone back up, dropped and gone back up, driven seemingly by the same laws of thermodynamics as those bobbing glass birds found in novelty shops. Maybe the shattering of my naïve illusions about imparting my higher degree-conferred wisdom in a way that would captivate youthful minds will make you gloat. I wouldn’t blame you.
It’s more likely, if I know you, that you’ll sympathize, though, and do what I’ve done – realize it’s probably not about my knowledge, or their lack of sleep or interest on any particular day. It’s at least partly about setting my own expectations, aspirations, and frustrations aside and trying to notice when they do things right, or perhaps more importantly, when they do the right thing. And, it’s about asking their opinion.
There is perhaps nothing so humbling as standing in front of a crowded room of 18-to-20-year-olds and asking them to tell you, anonymously and with forethought, what’s wrong with you. That’s exactly what colleges and universities do each semester with teacher evaluations, and the outcomes count for a lot.
I decided to take a colleague’s advice and try to get feedback by using my own private, mid-semester survey, and, to my surprise, my students offered constructive suggestions and even sympathy for the difficulty of making journalism history interesting. They gave me attaboys for effort, even puzzling over why a certain lesson didn’t work despite my obvious enthusiasm for the topic.
One of my students came to see me, in part, to buck me up about a class. She blamed lack of participation on uncaring classmates, her classmates, whom she suggested didn’t care much about a general education class they were required to take. She told me it was obvious I was trying hard and she did her best to make me feel better. Maybe I’m naïve, but she seemed sincere, and no grade was hanging in the balance. I later found out one of her own absences from class was due to the fact that her mother was dying of cancer. Her actions are in stark relief to mine as a post-teen.
I took heart in my student’s rationalization about the class, but somehow, as the semester has progressed and my comfort level and interactions with students have increased, the once deadly atmosphere has livened up, and students are participating more. There are fewer naps and downcast eyes. Could it be the students weren’t the problem after all? It’s a colossal understatement to say that’s a possibility.
So, I guess I have more to atone for than I thought – my past sins as a student and my current ones as a teacher facing challenges in the classroom from students who are much like my younger self, and just as likely (hopefully) to actually be affected by the way I treat them as I was by how you treated me – even if it took decades to realize it.
I hope you’ll accept my apology for my behavior. I’d also like to thank you for yours. Your job is harder, and more fulfilling, than I ever imagined.
--Danna L. Walker
Danna L. Walker
Danna L. Walker is an assistant professor of communications at American University.
At U of All People, we want to attract the caliber of students who apply to Yale or Harvard. But let’s face it: Situated in Left-Middle, Nowhere, with a junior-sized faculty, no football team, and degrees in animal husbandry, we haven’t had a shot at anyone with SATs over 1000 -- that is, we didn’t until our top alum, Bobby “Buzz” Martin, CEO of Amalgamated, Inc., kicked in with an unrestricted donation of $500 million.
Now we’ve got the wherewithal to launch the biggest recruitment campaign around, as soon as we finish building the Buzz basketball stadium and facilities, refurnish the chancellor’s house, and pay off some of those bad loans incurred during the tenure of our last financial officer, D. Fal Cates.
But after that, here’s what we’ll do:
1. Send out a mass mailing to every single high school senior in the United States with a GPA of 3.5 or above and SAT scores over 1250. The packet will include a letter from our newly renovated chancellor, a lottery ticket with a chance to win $100,000 and a drawing date of February 15 (our application deadline), a free UAP cell phone that connects directly to our admissions office, and a CD with photos of our new residence halls and a voice-over by the rap star 50 Cent.
2. Establish 100 UAP scholarships of $100,000 each for deserving applicants who can tell us in 100 words “Why I’m a U of All People Kind of Guy/Gal.” Essayettes will be judged on originality and SAT scores.
3. Promise luxurious accommodations and meals at our new UAP residence halls, which boast DSL connections and video games in every room, not to mention hot tubs and massage chairs for those late-night study sessions. Our food plan from 2006 on will be overseen by the celebrity chef Emeril, who will cook for the students one Thursday a month.
4. Solicit 50 basketball stars to join our renowned team, the Bees, and play in our Buzz stadium. We’ll be culling the top from high schools where we’ve sent our recruiters with lucrative contracts. Athletes will be housed in “the Cave,” our brand-new dormitory that features mink bedding, built-in beer coolers, and selected access to UAP cheerleaders. Go, Bees!
5. Build a new student center, the Buzz-y Bee, with 24/7 service and the Bzzz Discotheque, with guest appearances by Eminem and Beyoncé. Other highlights include a 500-person screening room for first-run films, a casino, and a skinny-dipping pool.
6. Set up a Chancellor-for-the-Day program, in which one lucky student is selected to control the university for 24 hours, from grant oversight to special-events planning.
7. Guarantee employment for 50 percent of our graduating class, with our links to the newly created financial firm of UAP & Co., the law firm of AUP, Ltd., and our entertainment division, PAU Ltd.
8. Overhaul the grounds, including a 36-hole golf course, a ski run, and an artificial beach.
9. Investigate whether we should increase faculty salaries. Note: This item has been shelved for fiscal 2006-7.
We also have plenty of other programs in the works, from Free Money Days in Econ 101 classes to book contracts associated with PAU Ltd. for the students in our creative writing workshops. Or how about our Nobel Dance Program, where we invite Nobel prize winners from all over the globe to visit UAP and show us how they can hoof it at our Bzzz Discotheque? Or our Junior Year Abroad, with snowboard academies in the Swiss and Italian Alps and surfing school in St. Croix?
Gosh, we’ve got so many ideas, generated by the Manhattan-based PR firm of Skule & Dine, we hardly know what to do with them! Our national advertising campaign is set to hit the airways in late August, with a video by the same folks who did those cool iPod commercials, and music written by Coldplay.
U of all People: We’ll steal your heart -- or buy it!
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
About 10 minutes into last week's now legendary episode of Oprah (the show that made it to the front page of newspapers; the one that left "memoirist" James Frey on the verge of confessing that he possibly made up his own name, but couldn’t be sure), one part of my mind was riveted to the tube while another part wandered off to conduct an intensive seminar about the whole thing, complete with Power Point slides containing extensive quotations from Foucault’s late writings on the "technologies of the self."
This happens a lot, actually. What Steve Martin once said about philosophy also applies to cultural theory: "When you study it in college, you learn just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life."
Well, it turns out that a certain amount of my seminar was just a repetition of work already done in the field that we might well call "Oprah studies." It has a substantial literature, including four academic books and numerous journal articles, most of which I have read over the past few days. Some of it is smart and insightful. Some of it consists of banalities gussied up with footnotes. In other words, it's like Shakespeare criticism, only there isn't as much of it.
Though there's plenty, to be sure. I've now spent more time reading the literature than I ever have watching the show. Some of it has been very instructive. There was, for example, a journal article from a few years ago complaining that other scholars had not grasped Oprah's postmodernity because they had failed to draw on Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on dialogism.
What important results follow from applying Bakhtin? Well, the concept of dialogism reveals that on talk shows, people talk to one another.
We may not have realized that before. But we do now. Scholarship is cumulative.
Indeed, by 2003, there were grounds to think that Oprah was not postmodern, but an alternative to postmodernity. So it was revealed when the first book-length study of the daytime diva appeared from Columbia University Press: Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture, by Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"Far from confirming Fredric Jameson's view that postmodern culture lacks emotionality or intensity because cultural products are disconnected from the people who produced them," writes Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey suggests that both the meaning and the emotional intensity of her products are closely intertwined with her narrative authority." Her programs, books, movies, magazine, and other cultural commodities all add up to "nothing less than a narrative work [able] to restore the coherence and unity of contemporary life."
For an example of this redemptive process in action, we might turn to the program from six years ago called "Men Whose Hair Is Too Long" -- during which, as Illouz describes it, "Oprah brought to the stage women who told the audience of their desire to have their sons, lovers, brothers, or husbands change a ‘hairy part’ of their body (mustache, hair, beard)." The menfolk are briefly “exposed to the public” and then “taken to a back room” – from which they later emerge with “a change supposed to effect a spectacular transformation.”
Such transformations are part of the Oprah metanarrative, as we might want to call it.
“The ‘hairy parts’ are exposed as a transactional object in a domestic, intimate relationship that is constructed as contentious,” as Illouz explains. “The haircut or moustache shave provides a double change, in the man’s physical appearance and in his intimate relationship with a close other. The show’s pleasure derives from the instantaneous transformation -- physical or psychic -- undergone by the guests and their relationships, which in turn promote closer bonds.”
This all sounds deeply transformative, to be sure. It made me want to go get a haircut.
But something about the whole argument -- Illouz’s reference to Oprah’s “narrative authority”; the framing of makeover as ritual of self-transfiguration; the blurring of the line between intimate relationship and televised spectacle -- is really frustrating to consider.
It is hard not to think of Richard Sennett’s argument in The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (Knopf, 1977), for example, that we have been on a long, steady march towards “the tyranny of intimacy,” in which every aspect of the social conversations gets reduced to the level of the personal. “It is the measurement of society in psychological terms,” as Sennett put it. “And to the extent that this seductive tyranny succeeds, society itself is deformed.”
But no! Such worries are part of an “elite” cultural discourse, according to Sherryl Wilson’s book Oprah, Celebrity, and Formations of Self, published by Palgrave in 2003. A whole raft of theorists (the Frankfurt School, David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950), the arguments about the rise of “psychological man” and “the culture of narcissism” in the writings of Philip Rieff and Christopher Lasch, and so on) have treated mass society as a force creating an almost inescapable force of consumerism and privatized experience. The fascination with celebrities is part of this process. Their every quirk and mishap becomes news.
To the “elitist” eye, then, Oprah might look like just another symptom. But according to Wilson (who is a lecturer in media theory at Bournemouth University in the UK) the Oprah phenomenon belongs to an altogether different cultural logic. It is a mistake to regard her program as just another version of therapeutic discourse. It draws, rather, on feminist and African-American understandings of dialogue -- the public sharing of pain, survival, and mutual affirmation -- as a necessary means of transcending the experience of degradation.
The unusually intense relationship between Oprah and her audience would probably have impressed a stodgy old Marxist like Theodor Adorno as evidence of alienation under advanced capitalism. Wilson regards “the apparent closing of the gap between the star self and the personal self” as something quite different.
“Rather than the participants seeking to transcend their ‘ordinariness’ by emulating the personal of a celebrity,” writes Wilson, “it is the ‘ordinary’ and everyday experience of Oprah which works to validate the personal stories recounted by the guests. In other words, those who speak on the show, and who participate through viewing at home, do not position themselves within the aura of a personal anchored in a glamour that for the majority is unattainable; rather, empowerment is located within the realm of everyday life.”
While the star does possess an undeniable charisma, Oprah’s is the glamour of simple decency. “Irrespective of the topic of the day or the treatment through which the topic is handled,” as Wilson puts it, “Oprah’s performance is guaranteed to be inclusive, (generally) nonjudgmental, (often) humorous, and (almost always) empathic.”
How that amiable persona then generated certain massive effects in the literary sphere is a matter addressed in the two scholarly volumes devoted to analyzing the Oprah Book Club.
Each book has a defensive quality; the authors seem to want to defend the book club, nearly as much as they do to analyze it. “From its inception in September 1996,” notes Rooney, “OBC was commandeered as a rallying point around which both cultural commentators and common people positioned themselves in perpetuation of America’s ongoing struggle of highbrow versus lowbrow. Both sides made reductive use of the club to galvanize themselves either as populist champions of literature for the masses or as intellectual defenders of literature from the hands of the incompetent.”
But Rooney contends that a closer look at the club, and at the books themselves, suggests “that there exists a far greater fluidity among the traditions categories of artistic classification than may initially meet the eye; that we needn’t shove every text we encounter into a prefabricated box labeled ‘high,’ ‘low,’ or ‘middle.’”
Farr’s argument in Reading Oprah converges with Rooney’s -- finding in the conversational praxis of the book club something like a down-home version of Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Literary Theory (Harvard University Press, 1988).
The book club has embodied “contingent relativism,” writes Farr, “constructed not in the absence of truth, but in the context of many truths, negotiated truths, truths that people arrive at in conversation with others and with their own often contradictory values.” Hence the need to discuss the reading, to embed the books in a conversation. They need to “have a talking life” so that so that readers can “explore and work their way through the myriad of possible responses.”
Given their interest in giving Oprah’s aesthetic and ethical stances the benefit of the doubt, it is all the more striking when either author admits to feeling some reservations about the program. While doing her research, Farr recalls, she “tuned into a pre-Christmas program” that proved to be “an hour-long consumer frenzy.”
This was an “O List show” which is evidently a major event among the Oprahites. The celebrity “gives away literally hundreds of dollars worth of free stuff to every guest in her audience,” writes Farr. “Pants, candles, shoes, electronics – you name it. If Oprah likes it, she’s giving it away on this show....I watched open-mouthed, both appalled and envious. Was this incredibly tacky or unbelievably generous? Did I want to run screaming from the room or do my best to get on the next show? Both/and. It was a moment of genuine American ambivalence.”
The protocols of the book club were also grounds for concern, at least for Rooney. “Once the tape started rolling,” she writes, “neither Winfrey nor her readers seemed permitted to remark critically on the selections, or to advance beyond any but the most immature, advertisement-like, unconditionally loving responses to every single novel they encountered.”
What made last week’s program with James Frey so fascinating was the sudden revelation of another side of the Oprah persona. Gone was the branded performance as “inclusive, (generally) nonjudgmental, (often) humorous, and (almost always) empathic.” Her manner had scarcely any trace left of its familiar “I’m OK, you’re OK” spirit.
Oprah was angry, and Frey was some very considerable distance from OK. She was also indignant to discover that the publishing industry makes no real effort to enforce the implicit contract between reader and writer that goes with a book being shelved as nonfiction. This seems terribly naive on her part. But no doubt most of her audience shared her surprise. (“She wants publishers to fact-check their books?” I thought. “Hell, they don’t even edit them.”)
Remarkable as the spectacle was, however, it did not come as a total surprise. Perhaps I will give myself away as an “elitist” here, in the terms that Sherryl Wilson uses in Oprah, Celebrity, and Formations of Self. But at the end of the day, the therapeutic ethos is not antithetical to a deep yearning for authority (a craving then met by the stentorian Dr. Phil, who scholars have yet to analyze, oddly enough).
Nor is there any deep discontinuity between the conspicuous consumption of an “O List show” and the completely uncritical attitude towards whatever book Oprah has selected for the month. If anything, they seem like sides of a coin.
In search of a different perspective on the matter, I contacted Cecelia Koncharr Farr – whose book Reading Oprah seems, on the whole, an endorsement of the “individual pluralism” of the show’s ethos. What did she make of l’affaire Frey?
“It seems apparent to me,” Farr told me by e-mail, “that Oprah started out with a viewpoint that most experienced readers would have in this situation, that the facts aren't as important as the more general truthfulness of the story in a novel or memoir. Most readers surely took some of Frey's aggrandizements and exaggerations with a grain of salt from the beginning, while still enjoying the character he was constructing, still enjoying the story, and still finding the book powerful and interesting.....
“My guess is that the righteous indignation we saw on last week's show comes from Oprah representing the less experienced readers who needed Frey's memoir to be true in a journalistic sense. Her chastisement of the publishing industry was the first real exertion of her authority I have seen beyond her selection of books. She's earned that authority, certainly, but it was surprising to see her use it. Still, I believe she used it on behalf of her readers.”
I was, to be honest, dumbfounded by this response. I printed it out, and read it a few times to make sure Farr had actually said what she seemed to be saying.
Her contention seemed to be that Oprah’s audience had become upset from mistakenly reading the book as “true in a journalistic sense” -- which was, somehow, a function of readerly inexperience, not of authorial dishonesty.
And from her account, it appeared that Frey’s memoir contained a "general truthfulness" -- one it would be naive to expect to be manifested at the level of occasional correspondence between the text's claims and ascertainable facts.
So I wrote her back, checking to see if I’d followed her.
“I think theorists and critics, especially, but also seasoned readers, read memoirs without an expectation of ‘correspondence between the text's claims and ascertainable facts,’” she responded. “Memoirists creatively construct characters and situations with a lot of license -- and readers and publishers have tacitly allowed that license. That's not to say Frey didn't take this license to its very limit. His constructions at times lose an even tenuous connection with ascertainable facts. When Frey pushed the limits, he drew intense attention to the slippage this connection has seen in recent years. But he wasn't the first to take such license, nor is he responsible for the larger changing perception of what ‘memoir’ (or ‘creative nonfiction’) means.”
Perhaps those terms now just mean “whatever you can get away with” -- though that seems vaguely insulting to honest writers working in those genres. (There is a some difference, after all, between the tricks played by memory and the kind that a con man practices.)
Why the furor over Frey? “I think the vilification he has been subject to in the media is extreme,” writes Farr, “and probably stems from some larger discomfort about dishonesty from sources who are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts.’"
There may be something to that. And yet it begs any number of questions.
The man has made a small fortune off of fabricating a life and selling it -- while loudly talking, in the very same book, about the personally transformative power of “the truth.” Oprah Winfrey endorsed it, and (at first anyway) insisted that mere factual details were subordinate to a larger truth... A personal truth....A truth that, it seems, is accountable to nothing and nobody.
Suppose this becomes an acceptable aspect of public life – so that it seems naive to be surprised or angered by it. Then in what sense can we expect there to be institutions that, in Farr’s words, “are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts’”?
Let’s leave that topic for the Oprah scholars to consider. In the meantime, remember that her next selection is Eli Wiesel’s Night, a memoir about surviving the Nazi death camps. It might be an interesting discussion. Especially if the book club takes up the idea that there are forms of truth that, in the final analysis, have exactly nothing to do with self-esteem.
I fondly remember my days playing little league baseball. Although I usually played right field, my parents tell me that I played the entire outfield when the ball was hit. I did not think that much about winning or losing -- I just loved being with my friends and kicking around the dirt. At some point, I did realize the teams that played the best won the championship and each member won a trophy. One day while at a friend’s house, I stopped to admire his shiny golden trophies.It was at this moment that I said to myself “I want a trophy!” While I was not the brightest young man to play baseball in Paris, Tenn., I quickly deduced that I needed to be a better player and that my team must work together to win the championship. I am happy to report that the Moose Lodge won the B league championship in 1978.
In the past several years, youth soccer groups have formed all across the country and have expanded the access that kids have to organized sports. The opportunity for kids to play soccer is tremendous and has benefited numerous youngsters. One thing that worries me is the trend in which in many leagues, all the kids get participation “trophies” at the end of the season. Please do not e-mail me concerning self-esteem. I have heard the discussion and cannot grasp this concept. Interestingly, the first time I discussed this issue was at a faculty forum on the characteristics of current college students. Although many positive attributes were revealed at this forum, faculty members indicated that some students feel a sense of entitlement and that their attendance and meager participation and performance should be rewarded with at least a C in a course. I spoke up and termed this the youth soccer phenomenon. Although this is a broad generalization, some college students have never been challenged and want a trophy (a grade of C) for minimal effort and work because they were on the team (came to class).
Another event reminded me that the higher education version of a youth soccer league is not just at the student level. I recently heard a few administrators discussing a grant program for faculty aimed at improving teaching and learning. The conversation was such that I felt like I was listening to youth soccer coaches who proudly pass out participation trophies at the end of the season. There was less concern for identifying faculty who had written meritorious proposals and more concern for making sure every applicant gets a piece of the funding pie.
Certainly, not all students and administrators fit the mold described above. In fact, I hope they are in the minority. However, my somewhat exaggerated analogies do speak to the important issue of maintaining and promoting academic excellence at all levels of higher education. I am not the first or the last person to comment on academic excellence at the university level; and I suspect that this term is in most mission statements and numerous commencement addresses. A current problem with this term is that it has been overused and misused to the point that it has different meanings to the various stakeholders in higher education. Although most educators gravitate toward the principles of academic excellence that call for quality and relevant work with high standards for students and faculty, the term mediocrity is being used more often in discussions of higher education.
The association of mediocrity with higher education should be on the minds of every faculty member. Faculty members are facing an academic tug-of-war against some students who want less work and institutions that are accepting more paying customers not prepared for or willing to face college-level responsibilities. Challenges to academic excellence can be formidable, but it will be faculty members in classrooms, laboratories and across campus who must fight the battle against mediocrity in higher education on a daily basis. The youth soccer model will not be effective in this effort as faculty must provide courses, curricula and research opportunities that challenge students and only reward deserving students with academic trophies. Students who do not succeed must be inspired to try again and construct a plan to earn the trophies on their transcript.
The youth soccer approach is also not the best scholarly model for faculty scholarship and recognition. For example, I do not want to have a paper published or grant funded just because it was submitted nor do I want to publish work in a so-called “peer-reviewed” journal sponsored by my own university. The shiniest trophies faculty earn (papers or books published, grants awarded, tenure, promotion, etc.) only come after considerable work and critical peer review.
To be honest, I would not have it any other way because I know this system usually identifies and rewards excellence. I have had several papers rejected for publication and usually go through periods of disgust, frustration, anxiety and ultimately motivation to produce a better product. In the end, if a revised edition of a manuscript is published, it is a better piece of work and I am glad that I was “invited” to take a closer look at my work and words to produce a higher quality paper. Invitations for excellence extended to faculty from peers and to students from faculty will always result in the highest quality work and provide the best scholarly work and teaching/learning experiences for faculty and students.
Last year my parents had to move out of their house into a smaller apartment. I was asked to look through boxes that contained some of the sports trophies I had accumulated during my younger days. They were a reflection of many years of my life, and I like to think that I received each one of the trophies because I earned it or gave my best effort to a winning team. I only kept my very first trophy and a golf ball used to win a junior tournament when I was 10. I sent the rest of the plastic memories to the trash and I put the golf ball in my office at school. This MacGregor Tourney DX ball (number 4) holds a special place in my heart as it is a constant reminder that hard work usually pays off in the end and that dedication is just as important as talent.
Although I have used an analogy involving youth soccer, the overriding theme of this commentary is that the current environment in higher education will require professors to rededicate themselves to the principles of academic excellence that promote quality and standards and retard mediocrity. A famous quote by the late Vince Lombardi may help in this endeavor: “There's only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything. I do, and I demand that my players do.” If faculty members stop giving and demanding “everything,” there will be a real crisis in higher education.
James Ricky Cox
James Ricky Cox is an associate professor of chemistry at Murray State University, where he is also a teaching scholar-in-residence at the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
What possessed me to ask to study with the scholar I'll call Sebastian Klugmann? The field of literary study he was at the top of wasn't the one I was limping toward, his critical method didn't especially appeal to me, his style wasn't the one I went for in professors. I liked them older, crankier, as the early signs of collegial neglect are bringing on their first dismayed glimpses of the end. Klugmann didn't have any bitterness to stave off. He was younger, smoother, still influential and assured -- the ambivalence that distinguished his arguments was purely intellectual. He had the privilege of knowing that what he thought mattered, and the pleasure.
I couldn't have been any more his type than he was mine. It's surprising that he let me in to his graduate seminar, and his mistake would soon have been clear to him. I would arrive late, sit in a fold-up chair against a wall -- the high-backed chairs around the conference table were safely taken -- and keep my mouth shut. There's a place in a classroom for quietly engaged students, but a sense of engagement wasn't what I gave off.
It was by all measures a successful seminar: there were verbal footnotes, heated yet cordial disputes, vital principles in play and at stake, shirts with sweat marks running down the seam. Some respond to the fear of whitewater rafting trips or the loudness of certain concerts by falling asleep: My response to the wholesale expenditure in Klugmann's classroom of conflicting yet harmonized energies was to yawn, fidget, count my change for the run during break to the candy machine for a box of Skittles, chosen perhaps because they too could be counted. Only Genevieve could puncture the membrane of my inertia: dark-haired and green-eyed, she would turn to face Klugmann at the head of the table, her collarbone riding high beneath a blouse tightened against breasts swelling like a majestic wave that I might just have caught if only I had known how to surf. Then her full mouth would close and she'd turn away, her frame retreating into her clothing, and I'd slump back in my chair.
So what was I doing there? My motives were probably the common ones, curiosity and ambition. Like everyone else I must have been intrigued by Klugmann's celebrity. It must also have occurred to me as to everyone else that his letter of recommendation would look nice in my dossier. But if my motives were the same as everyone else's, why didn't I try to score points at the conference table like everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to appear to be sucking up and was trying to distinguish myself by my apathy.
Whatever he represented, however polished his manner, Klugmann turned out to be highly likable. He wore his knowledge lightly, agreed and disagreed generously, laughed readily. The lines on his face when he laughed suggested a vulnerability that allayed my distrust of his smoothness.
I tried to see him to discuss my term paper. There was always a wait. Once when I'd had the patience to get to the front of the line I discovered that the dog I took with me everywhere -- a mutt disguised as a Belgian shepherd -- had drifted away. Across campus was a pizzeria where they used so much oil that the toppings tended to slide off the pizza and, often enough, to the ground. I found the dog there as usual. By the time I got back to his office Klugmann had gone. I called to set up another appointment.
My feeling for home across the country was embodied in my devotion to its professional basketball team, the Knicks. This devotion was dire: the Knicks' fate concerned me more than my own. To watch them play was always stressful, but the effect on me of their playoff series against the Bulls belongs in the annals of hysteria. The Bulls were better. I was dead set against an inevitability.
During those game days I'd grow ever more anxious. Once a game was underway I'd pass from muttering gloom to stunned frenzy to a quasi-religious despair in which every basket the Bulls scored was another abomination. The Knicks' mistakes brought on apoplexy, foul calls against them a species of persecution mania. Their triumphs gave me no compensatory pleasure, merely relief.
The appointment Klugmann had given me fell in the middle of the decisive game. Halfway through the second quarter I saw that it was time to leave for it. I watched the rest of the quarter anyway, and was twenty minutes late when I knocked. Klugmann appeared to say he'd be with me shortly and withdrew. Staring at the letters of his name on the frosted glass office door, I played out in imagination the third quarter I was missing, a fantasy all the less convincing for being continually interrupted by resolutions to leave. The door opened. Genevieve came out and turned down the hallway without meeting my eyes.
Klugmann was composed, but I wasn't. Only when he had had me take a seat, fixed his gaze on me with an owlish deliberation and covered the back of one hand with the other -- only then did it strike me that whatever thought I might have given my paper topic was gone. I found that I hadn't come to discuss my work at all but to disavow my classroom persona, to establish a connection to Klugmann, to befriend him.
I was clumsy and inarticulate. I meant to tell him something of myself, but the game clock was ticking. To explain my hurry I launched into a manic excursus on the Knicks: the illustriousness of their history, the nobility of their cause, the precariousness of their situation. Klugmann seemed puzzled, but in a spirit of cordiality he offered an irrelevant anecdote about his boyhood infatuation with the Dodgers. I steered the subject back from baseball to basketball. He looked at his watch and invited me to come to the point. I mumbled something about being too deep in the research for my term paper to be able to discuss it. "Come back and see me when you've got your ducks in a row," Klugmann said. When I resumed my position in front of the television it was late in the game and the Knicks were in trouble.
I turned in my paper. Klugmann liked it well enough. His comments were apt and courteous but gave no hint of our further association. And we had none.
But a term or two later I ran into him in a hallway. His greeting was friendly and we struck up the kind of spontaneous desultory chat that I'd hoped to have in his office. I found myself asking him to excuse my behavior in our meeting. "I remember only that you seemed a little crazy," he said indulgently.
We walked together down the corridor. At the end he went through the swinging door of the men's room, a quartz, marble, and porcelain prewar beauty. I followed him in, and heard my words echo from tiles as he approached a urinal at the far side. I hesitated before going to one at the near side and unzipping my fly. Instead of repairing to a sink at the back of the room when he'd finished, Klugmann took a step towards me and resumed the conversation.
There were no partitions between the urinals, and the sides of the floor-length structure I faced are not so high as in a newer model. This older urinal was more like a tub than a chest and provided less shelter and privacy.
I hadn't had to go in the first place, and my nervousness at talking to Klugmann didn't help. Nothing would come out, not a drop, a fact that would have been apparent from Klugmann's vantage. He was still talking -- was he also looking? I didn't dare turn my head to find out. I was too busy deciding for how long to hold my position. At some moment of headlong abandon I broke into the magic dance men do to purge the last drop, flushed the toilet, put myself together and turned around. Klugmann was heading to the sinks. I did too, averting my eyes while I scrubbed my hands with a surgeon's diligence. We didn't look at each other again till we were back out. His eyes seemed to flash with mischief, and an incisor snagged his lower lip as if he was holding back a laugh. "It isn't that I was crazy," I said. "It was ...."
"A performance?" He clapped me on the shoulder, pivoted on a leather sole and started up the corridor.
"Yeah," I said after him.
"Bravo!" he cried without turning, "bravo," and gathered momentum for the loftier matters that awaited him.
James Wallenstein, who has a novel in need of a publisher, teaches writing at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University.
I can’t remember when I snapped. Was it the faculty seminar in which the instructor used the phrase “the objectivity, for it is not yet a subjectivity” to refer to a baby? Maybe it was the conference in which the presenter spoke of the need to “historicize” racism, rambled through 40 minutes of impenetrable jargon to set up “new taxonomies” to “code” newspapers and reached the less-than-startling conclusion that five papers from the 1820s “situated African-Americans within pejorative tropes.” Could it have been the time I evaluated a Fulbright applicant who filled an entire page with familiar words, yet I couldn’t comprehend a single thing she was trying to tell me? Perhaps it was when I edited a piece from a Marxist scholar who wouldn’t know a proletarian if one bit him in the keister. Or maybe it just evolved from day-to-day dealings with undergraduates hungry for basic knowledge, hold the purple prose.
At some point, I lost it. I began ranting in the faculty lounge. I hurled the Journal of American History/Mystery across the library, muttered in the shower, and sent befuddled e-mails to colleagues. I’m fine now. Once I unburdened I found I was not alone; lots of fellow academics agree that their colleagues couldn’t write intelligible explanations of how to draw water from the tap. From this was born the Society for Intellectual Clarity (SIC). We intend to launch a new journal, SIC PUPPY (Professors United in Plain Prose Yearnings) as soon as we find someone whose writing is convoluted enough to draft our grant application. (We’re told we should seek recruits among National Science Foundation recipients.)
Until the seed money comes in our journal is purely conceptual, but upon start-up SIC PUPPY will enact the following guidelines for submissions.
Titles: Brevity is a virtue. Titles with colons are discouraged. Any title with a colon, semi-colon, and a comma will be rejected on principle. We accept no responsibility for doodles and exclamatory obscenities scrawled on the returned text, even if you do enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Style: If any manuscript causes one of our editors to respond to a late-night TV ad promising to train applicants for “an exciting career in long-distance trucking,” the author of said manuscript will be deemed a boring twit and his or her work will be returned. See above for doodle disclaimers.
Audience: Hey, would it kill you to write something an undergrad might actually read? If so, please apply for permanent residency in Bora Bora.
Terminology: If any author desires to invent a new term to describe any part of the research, refer to Greta Garbo’s advice on desire in the film Ninotchka: “Suppress it.” There are 171,476 active words in the English language and the authors of SIC PUPPY are confident that at least one of them would be adequate.
Nouns and Verbs: Among those 171, 476 words are some that are designated as nouns and others clearly meant as verbs. Do not confuse the two. SIC PUPPY refuses to conference with anyone about this. We have prioritized our objectives.
Thesis: We insist that you have one. If you don’t have anything to say, kindly refrain from demonstrating so. We do not care what Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Freud, or Foucault have to say about your subject or any other. We’ve read them; we know what they think.
Academic Catfights: The only person who gives a squanker’s farley about literature reviews and historiography is your thesis adviser. We request that you get on with the article and reduce arcane debates to footnotes. The latter should be typed in three-point Windings font.
Editing for Smugness: If your article was originally a conference paper and, if at any time, you looked up from your text and smiled at your own cleverness, please delete this section and enroll in a remedial humility course.
No Silly Theories:SIC PUPPY does not care if a particular theory is in vogue; we will not consider silly ones. For example, bodies are bodies, not “texts” and dogs are dogs; they do not “signify” their “dogginess” through “signifier” barks. While we’re on the subject, we at SIC PUPPY have combed scientific journals to confirm that time machines do not exist. We thus insist that human beings can be postpartum or postmortem, but not postmodern.
Privileging Meaning: We believe that sometimes you’ve got to call it like it is, even if that entails using a label or category. We know that some of you think we shouldn’t privilege any meaning over another. To this we say, “We’re the editors, not you, and we intend to use our privileged positions of power to label those who reject categories ‘ninnies.’ So there!”
Citations: We insist that you use the Chicago Manual of Style for all citations. Not because we love it, but because it annoys us no end to see parentheses in the middle of text we’re trying to read. Why we read a theory on ellipses (Bakhtin, 1934) just last night describing how English authors (Wilde, 1905; Shaw, 1924) sought to embed Chartist messages (S. Webb, 1891) into....
Complaints: In the course of preparing a journal it is inevitable that typos will appear, that medieval French words will go to print with an accent aigu where an accent grave should have been, and that edits will be made to what you were sure was perfect prose (but wasn’t). Do not call the editors to complain that we’ve humiliated you before your peers and have ruined your academic career. SIC PUPPY will not waste time telling you to get a life; we will direct your call to the following pre-recorded message: “Thhhhhwwwwwwwpt!”
Satire and Irony: To paraphrase the folksinger Charlie King, serious people are ruining our world. If you do not understand satire, or confuse irony with cynicism, go away. Try therapy ... gin ... a warm bath ... anything! Except teaching or writing.
Robert E. Weir is a former senior Fulbright scholar who teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts.
It's that time again. Sometimes it's about the next class. Sometimes it's about the last class. There are semesters when you are told in person. There are semesters when you are informed through email. You can be sure only that it will happen in virtually every undergraduate class -- the larger the first or second-year student population, the more certain: grandmothers will begin to die.
Last week my first succumbed, around the usual time, just past the semester's midpoint. Her grandson informed me in an e-mail, which contained only one problem: the date of the class meeting for which he would have to be absent was mistakenly given to be two days earlier than in fact the class meets. Was this in fact the day of the funeral? Is the student so overcome with grief that he can't even get his dates straight?
Or was there no funeral? Maybe there's not even any grandmother! What should I do? Insist upon a death certificate? (I've heard of some teachers who have.) At least seek clarification about whether the excuse has to do exclusively with the day of the funeral or else with some longer shadow of either family obligation or mortality itself?
You never know with student excuses, especially the most common ones. "There are 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," protests a character in Catch-22. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." In the world of student excuses, there are a lot more than 50 or 60. They're all worth missing class for.
I wish at least there could somehow be a moratorium on dead grandmothers. (Why normally only them? Don't grandfathers die, too?)
"Oh, no," I exclaimed several years ago, when a student in a composition class stepped out afterwards to explain that she had been absent because her grandmother had died. "Another dead grandmother!"
The girl immediately burst into tears.
Of course I wished I was dead. The student's grandmother really had died. Or else her granddaughter was a good actress. But you want to try to avoid being too cynical about excuses, especially those involving death. Question these particular excuses and you may as well be questioning respect for the dead or the suffering of those left behind.
Indeed, death-driven excuses are the best ones because the mere mention of death is commonly uttered with the unspoken understanding that no more need be said; a teacher is expected to believe the excuse as a function of honoring the deceased. Objecting to one is like objecting to the other -- and of course each is ratified by the sheer fact of death itself, whose utter seriousness demands its own recognition and brooks no skepticism.
And yet after awhile it's simply impossible not to be skeptical about student excuses -- all of them. Not only does any one fit into some classification, having to do, say, with such things as technology (especially popular since the dawn of computers), health, or law. Worse, it becomes positively garish to hear them from students who speak as if their particular excuse has never been given before.
This can lead to a sort of paradox: the most exceptional the excuse, the more believable. Who would not be likely to credit a student who stepped up to disclose that his family feared he might be kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia, and so he would be absent the next two weeks? This excuse was given to a colleague of mine last semester. Early one afternoon, she also heard from a student who couldn't make it to class because the roof had just collapsed at the apartment house to which she had just moved.
To be fair, the colleague apparently knew each of these students, and already trusted them. In these circumstances, all credulous bets are usually off. Although many teachers would not like to admit it, the whole problem of student excuses in fact applies only to students whom one either does not know or cannot know.
Granted, this means most students. Part of the reason everybody is so uncomfortable about excuses is because excuses register education in terms of its sheer numbers as well as its inescapable routines and necessary rules. We're all happier when education is instead manifest as a more intimate, flexible affair.
Insisting, as many teachers do, that excuses will only be acceptable, if at all, when given beforehand, is really a way of trying to establish another model of education entirely. Too bad the shadow of dead grandmothers, like mortality itself, has to fall over this model. "Students recur," quoth a celebrated Oxford don. So do their excuses. They know not their recurrence. But we do.
Finally, what to do? The solution the profession seems to have settled on, if only by default, is this: treat student excuses under the sign of comedy. There is of course some justice in this (as a hundred Web sites attest). So many students are utterly naive; how is a teacher not to laugh upon being told that "my best friend's father died?" Also, the very situation of having to give an excuse is so solemn that a comic rhythm is not easily refused.
In a way, the best solution to the situation is one I heard from a former colleague. He fondly remembered an early afternoon undergraduate class where the teacher told the students that if they missed class, they had to explain why during the next class. The whole class would judge whether they believed the explanation. This led, it seemed, to riotous fun, with each student trying to outdo the last in creativity and inventiveness....
In effect, what the teacher had done was to transform the deadly serious matter of absences into something wholly ludic. Yet was such a thing only possible in the late 1940s, in what must have been a small upper-division class, among a group of largely men, most World War II veterans? My colleague usually brought up his experience when the students we were given to teach, in largely service courses, seemed bent only on manipulating or outwitting us. A class such as the one he remembered seemed inconceivable then.
It still does. I love outrageous excuses as much as the next person -- and the general aspect of student follies of various kinds still delights me. Sometimes, bracing myself for a student who is going to step up with an excuse about some past or future absence, I try to project an aura that suggests: "All right, since we know what's going to happen, let's see if we can get through this with some wit and intelligence as well as sympathy."
But it seems to me we seldom do. Usually it's another dead grandmother, or some uninteresting variants. Frank McCourt describes one encounter in his recent memoir, Teacher Man. Bored with patently false student excuses in his high school classes, he had students write out better excuses. It was fun until the assignment evolved into writing excuses for such people as Hitler's mistress and then the administration got wind of it.
I admire this solution. But only from afar. Were there no students who stepped up to McCourt with, er, dead serious dead grandmothers, despite all? And would such play be possible in today's no-nonsense, grade-driven college atmosphere? Always, regarding absences, the teacher is in the inescapable position of someone-supposed-to-accept (a grimmer version of Jacques Lacan's celebrated formulation of the teacher as "someone-supposed-to-know"). I can only haplessly try to transpose the terms of the acceptance into a cooler emotional register.
It's not satisfactory, though, and it's not satisfying. Finally, I believe no response on my part is. The excuses are amusing to read about on Web sites. The howlers may be wonderful to recount to friends and colleagues. But nothing really changes back in the classroom. The site of excuse-making is static, timeless. Classes to attend and tests to take we have always with us, and therefore students who are, alas, absent, but with good reason. In a pinch, any reason will do, despite the fact that some are more plausible or more urgent than others, or that still others appear so true that they may as well be judged artless, and therefore become false.
As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It's as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. Myself, I'm probably incoherent by now, since, although I write about the whole question of excuses like a cynic, in practice I actually shrug over almost all of them like a fool.
In fact, it's worse. Each excuse-laden student who appears recalls to me a remark by Mary McCarthy, at the end of a chapter in The Stones of Florence. She quotes a Florentine who has recently remarked "that the pictures in the Uffizi had grown ugly from looking at the people who looked at them." By now I simply feel ugly from staring at so many lies. How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.
English Department, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Assistant Professor in Renaissance literature. Ph.D. required. 3/3 load. Salary $40,000. Duties include teaching composition, gym, and specialty every fifth year. Send CV and letter to Hiring Committee Chair. Deadline Oct. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Please ignore previous ad. Visiting Assistant Professor in Renaissance studies, Ph.D. required. 4/4 load. Salary starts at $35,000. Perks include semi-private office and access to faculty get-togethers. Send CV, letter, transcript, teaching philosophy, dossier, and writing sample to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Oct. 25.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Never mind previous ads. Visiting Instructor to teach five sections of composition per semester, as well as acting as English tutor for our student athletes. Ph.D. required. Salary laughable. Send CV, letter, and evidence of sanity to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Nov. 30.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Soliciting any warm body to teach at a school in the sticks without any charm; workload incommensurate with anything you’ve done before. Need ability to tolerate mind-numbingly dull students, an administration in love with itself, and a faculty simply waiting to retire. Evidence of experience welcomed. Salary debatable. Just arrive in person, and we’ll put you in front of a classroom. Deadline: 21st of Never. Ha ha....
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Full professor to fill our prestigious new Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. This job, occasioned by the untimely death of Professor Reginald Murgatroyd and heavily endowed by a long-lost cousin, carries a 2/1 load. Applicants should have a substantial body of published scholarship, an international reputation, and many influential friends. Send CV and letter to Professor Myra Blowenthorpe, Chair Pro-tem. Deadline Jan. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search extended: Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. Responsibilities include directing the new R. M. Renaissance Center and getting along with a chancellor who doesn’t respect the liberal arts. Send CV and cautious, diplomatic letter to Professor X. R. Clancy, Interim Chair. Deadline Feb. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search postponed indefinitely for Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. We could say that no candidates fit the bill or that our funds for the position were suspended, but instead we’ll let you guess as to just what administrative mess occasioned this screw-up. Send no CVs or letters, please, until next year, when we’ll probably try again.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
I am a baby-boom parent with children in college. We baby-boomers, now in our pre-dotage, have become infamous on college campuses -- again -- this time for noisily hovering over our children as they try to make their ways in the world (see Wikpedia on “helicopter parents”). From my own bleak experience -- both professional and personal -- I can say with confidence that our children become adults not because of our involvement in their lives, but in spite of it.
Penny Rue, the University of Virginia’s dean of students, calls us “benign dictators.” We, who reacted against the enforced age hierarchy of our own dictatorial parents, have become instead oppressors whose rule is based on the illusion that we and our children are peers, Rue says. And the illusion is so strong, that our children are fooled into not claiming the birthright that we claimed at their age: personal autonomy.
This embrace of dependence is not surprising given the attitudes of contemporary college students toward their parents. At the University of Maryland at College Park, James M. Osteen, the assistant vice president for student affairs, writes, “I find that students and their parents generally have a much closer relationship in recent years as compared to earlier decades. Students are very likely to list their parents as significant role models; whereas in the past students might name people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.”
It is sweet and fine for your 5 year old to think of you as sainted and heroic, but for your 20 year old to have the same attitude should be worrying. Why don’t we hear self-help sages speaking of the problem of arrested development any more? Where are the Erik Eriksons of yesteryear?
Rue and Osteen see the positive side of parental involvement. Both judge today’s parental role as student advocates to be an invitation to college-parent partnerships that can benefit students. But they also recognize the dangers: Both Osteen and Rue note that with parents handling everything from roommate problems to purchasing airplane tickets, students cannot develop a sense of mastery and the confidence necessary to live on one’s own. Erikson might observe that such parental behavior deprives young people of their identities as autonomous and competent adults.
I learned my own necessary lesson about meddling in my children’s education probably too late, after the critical period of Eriksonian development -- when the second of my three children was in sixth grade. Before that, I would regularly become concerned and then incensed about some way or other schools were failing my children. So caught up in tilting at windmills, I did not devote a moment’s attention to the big picture -- to problems of other students, teachers, schools, or to my children’s educational needs beyond small and preoccupying slights.
This is how I learned my lesson: My child, a superior sort of girl, of course, seemed not to be doing any work, while at the same time was receiving good grades. At a teacher conference I complained/boasted that my daughter was not doing any work and getting good grades. I suppose I imagined that with the complaint, her brilliance would be more appreciated, and she would get the special attention that as an exceptional person she deserved. Sure enough, it got her more attention immediately. Her grades plummeted. She became discouraged. And until she enrolled in college and had only herself to please, she never again studied for a test or did a lick of homework. To this day, this is the story my children tell their friends to describe the sort of person their mother is. There is no living it down.
As a parent of two in college and one in graduate school, I get involved only in questions of spelling. They may beg me to advise about conditional clauses, but I stand firm. I do listen to complaints about roommates, but have learned that in this area as in most issues of personal relationships it is best to listen only.
If other parents would fail earlier in their micro-management careers, college educators would not have to grin and bear helpful advice from over-bearing parents who threaten to bury student affairs offices under ship-loads of constructive criticism. Student affairs professional regularly remark to novices, “You see all those students walking around with cell phones? They are not talking to friends. They are talking to their mothers.”
And what are these students telling their parents? What they want to hear: that the people who run colleges don’t know half as much as their parents do and that life on campus is hell. And then their parents get on their mobile phones and call administrators who, if they weren’t chained to their desks would run screaming from their shabby little offices each time a call from a parent were announced.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now -- as a parent and as a college administrator. These calls can generate a lot of negative emotion -- raising blood pressure of both parents and college administrators. The number of these calls increase exponentially every year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2003, 16.6 million students were enrolled in college. I imagine that 16.6 million cell phones transmitting the troubled chatter of parents and children about what is going wrong in college must surely be capable of unbalancing the music of the spheres.
When I worked in a college president’s office, I often took calls from irate parents. I sometimes thought I felt the universe skipping a beat as they described the woes of their children in college: not being able to get into a popular (gut) class; wet, slippery floors in the bathroom; having to go to class in the snow/wind/rain; having an electrical box mounted outside their dorm room (which was sending out dangerous electrical waves); poor grades on tests studied for; having to study for tests over Thanksgiving break; having too short a Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer break; administrators not doing something about hurt feelings caused by not being offered a place in a fraternity; not doing something about roommates having sex; not being allowed to cheat on exams; the president getting too tough on those who assault others, etc., etc. Some parents would call already angry. Some would become angry when they realized that no matter how much they wanted it, changing the university was going to take longer than 24 hours. They became angrier and angrier as they were transferred from one office to another. The political science department would get calls from parents complaining about fully enrolled courses out of which their children were closed out. The department would pass the calls on to the provost’s office, which would pass it along to the president’s office. What did I do? I told these parents to write to their legislators about getting more funding for public universities. I pitied the next person they would talk to after getting off the phone with me.
Sometimes I think that my generation doesn’t much care about what we are trying to control. It is the existential act of exerting control that is important to us. Not going gently into that good night makes us forget ultimate truths. We may have short memories, but those we plague with our demands do not. Student affairs officers shake their heads and remember that baby boomers in their own youths had demonstrated for increased personal freedom, and had gotten rid of the college practice of in loco parentis. Now for their children, irony of ironies, they are demanding that it be put back.
In our 45-60 years we have been promiscuous and irrational in many of the issues we have raised our voices about. We got the U.S. out of Vietnam and, 30 years later, into Iraq. We started the sexual revolution, and now we vote for anti-birth control and anti-abortion politicians. We rejected our elders’ assertion of control over our lives and we put chokeholds on the lives of our children.
The time has come to think about the consequences of indiscriminately throwing our considerable middle-aged weight around. It seems to me we have to face some facts. First of all, we need to let our children grow up. Second, we need to realize that we can’t stop the world from turning, that the generation we bred will replace us, and that they need to be prepared to do so. Most of all, we need to grow up, grow old, shut up, and step aside.
Margaret Gutman Klosko
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.