Wanting and Not Wanting to Hit Each Other

Terry Caesar explores the ever looming threat of violence -- physical, emotional or legal -- on campus today.

February 3, 2006

"And I made them read Henry James. And some kid said, Well, he must've been all right in his time. I wanted to hit him."
                     --William Gass, teaching an MFA class

A former student who teaches at an inner-city high school tells me of another fight he had to break up the other day. This one was between two girls, in the hall. So far I don't think any student has tried to slug him, although some of his colleagues have been injured trying to break up fights. Have any fights have ever taken place is his classroom? I don't think so, although he's had to call security a few times when students have become too threatening or abusive.

I've never had to break up a fight. In the state university system where I taught for many years, one college was widely felt to be as dangerous as an inner-city school because it wasn't safe to walk the halls. That is, it was effectively considered to be a high school. What's the difference between college and high school? Bottom line: violence. To say that a professor doesn't have to "discipline" students in college is to say that he or she doesn't have to confront violence.

Violence has been present in my experience, ranging -- during my second year of teaching -- from a student who argued so vociferously about a grade after class he all but cocked his fist to another -- many years later -- who heaved her book against the wall outside after she stormed from my office during a conference (which turned into a protest about her grade).

But the violence has been verbal or symbolic only, including the time I left the classroom, slamming the door, when a student -- late again -- began to curse me. A dean later met with her, resulting in a transfer to another section of the class. One governing platitude about higher education is that violence "has no place" in it. It does, though. Violence is part of life, and to feel its surge is part of being alive. (My own fist was all but cocked at the above student.)

What education does is to address violence through symbolic means, making it susceptible to rational argument or otherwise displacing it onto acceptable, rule-governed realms, especially the athletic field. In a very real, literal sense, to be educated is to learn not to express -- much less commit -- violence.

But is part of this learning not even to talk about the subject? The answer seems to be, yes. We would be surprised, for example, in Patrick Allitt's recent, class-by-class account of a whole semester's teaching of one history course, I'm the Teacher, You're the Student, at any mention of violence. Sure enough, there is none. Allitt is impatient with students. (They're young.) They can be rude or even disruptive. (Cell phones.) But the prospect of violence is never mentioned, except in the reading on the syllabus. It's as if it didn't exist in the classroom or even in the account of human life sponsored by the classroom.

For example, when Allitt at one point asks a student to put away a granola bar he's eating, the student puts it away, if not without a "scowl." Yet he does what he's told, in large part, surely, because he accepts a behavioral script learned long ago. It no more occurs to him to protest than it occurs to Allitt not to demand; protest would lead the way to disorder, and disorder could escalate into some sort of violence.

Violence comes close to becoming manifest just once, when Allitt losing his temper over a chronic latecomer, late again, who grinds her chair and proceeds to browse through a fashion magazine. Allitt interrupts his lecture, stands in front of her, demands she stop reading the magazine, and warns her never to do it again. The student quickly complies, and moreover, blushes. Violence between student and teacher begins in earnest, or could begin, we might say, when the student fails to blush. Happily, most do.

At the college level, it's probably idle to ask how the students each managed to internalize everything (from the authority of the teacher to that of reason itself) that prompts the blush. Without that blush we may not be lost. (As my former student would say is the case at his high school.) But today in higher education, although we don't face bomb threats or concealed weapons, it can often seem as if we're getting uncomfortably close to being lost.

How to talk about the subject? There is of course the violence implicit in teaching itself, understood now as the recurrent, inescapable clash of principles, temperaments, or notions of authority. But today we see how violence -- I don't know what else to call it -- resonates throughout the whole institutional fabric, including the very legal processes designed to prevent it.

In myriad ways, what was formerly educational repeatedly suffers a fall into something merely litigious; Allitt cannot even describe his confrontation with the above student without interrupting it by the following disclaimer: "If she ever writes an account of the incident she'll say I 'towered over her.'" Precisely. Today even in the classroom we face a threat, and it feels no less incipiently violent for being representable in legal terms.

The other week I heard of a professor on leave, who has been teaching an online course for his university. A student plagiarized a paper. So informed, the student, who is a lawyer, wrote a full reply. First, he added documentation to all his sources, claiming that the paper was now no longer plagiarized. Then he promised legal action if this judgment continued. Finally, he added something like, I know where you live, I know your family, I know everything about you and your life. The professor was shocked. His chair was no help: "It's between you and the student."

What to do? Precisely what sort of action did the final portion of the student's message suggest? I gather the professor became frightened at the possibility of real rather than symbolic violence; perhaps he understood that the one was finally just a cover for the other. Eventually he withdrew the judgment of plagiarism. I don't know what final grade eventually resulted.

In such stories -- mine very secondhand -- all the details are seldom available. Nonetheless, there must be hundreds of such stories nationwide. Every year? Every semester? Every week? How to date precisely when students began either threatening or initiating legal action against professors for their grading decisions? Was it before or after the time when sexual conduct codes began to be written into institutional profiles?

Looking back, we can explain each not only as having been influenced by the other. Both were, and are, in response to a larger apprehension of violence, ultimately on the part of everyone against everyone else. If it once had a name, it was sexual harassment. But sexual harassment is only one name for a violent act, and, arguably, it no longer comprises the preeminent category for such acts on campus. What does?

It has no name. Instead, the times we want to hit each other have escalated into the times we want to inflict a legal act on each other -- if we can. Recently I heard another story of a teacher who was going over a midterm test with one of her students. Suddenly he got up and threw the textbook at her. I immediately recalled my own student, who hit the wall, not me. It would not have occurred to me (or her) a decade ago to head for a dean. It did occur to this woman, who, however, apparently wavered because she was an adjunct.

Yet another factor in the calculus of violence: the rise of adjuncts. They enjoy little status. They know they're powerless. So do their students. How can both the failure as well as the success of the legal process express violence? There are many reasons. The one that concerns me here is simple: nobody likes to think of academic life in terms of violence. Administrators, professors, students: we are all reasonable men and women. We are diverse, proudly. We are free to disagree among ourselves, calmly. We transform conflicts into resolutions, skillfully.

And if violence looms,  we know when someone has crossed the line. A friend recalls a time two decades ago when, during class, he threw a can of some sort out of the window in order to get a particularly noisy lawnmower to stop. Soon the mower himself as well as a man from security and a dean burst into the classroom at the "attack." My friend later heard that this example of "hotheadedness" could have cost him tenure.

No wonder. The act may not have been as provocative as if either the student or Allitt had thrown the granola bar at each other. Yet it was a physical action. The more interesting point to make, though, is that once, the act of throwing the can was not legally actionable. Today, my friend might well face a suit from the custodian. (And then his tenure committee a lawsuit from him.) Today, virtually any such action can be, or be perceived to be, incipiently violent, in part because any action is representable in legal terms. How can this not be the case,  when the fact of sexual desire itself is coded in precisely these terms?

More then two decades ago I taught a course in detective fiction. When you get to the American "hard boiled" writers, one of the things you notice is the presence of violence. Take for example, Dashiell Hammett's detective in a fight with a crook: "He punched me in the side and I could feel my ribs and guts flattening together like leaves in a book." I found such descriptions fascinating, at once vivid as well as stylized. But the students, as I remember, weren't fascinated. They didn't care to read about violence. This is not the same thing as preferring not to think about it, but it's close.

Although we must all be forgiven for imagining a world where nobody punches anybody, it seems to me we had better acknowledge that our precious academic world is not such a place. Worse, the circumstances we inhabit at the present time permit us instead to imagine -- or understand -- a stranger, more devious realm in which everybody is in place to symbolically punch everybody else by means of the law. Of course this world is admittedly happier than one in which everybody is free literally to start swinging.. But if you're either on the other end of a legal blow or else powerless to take your own shot, I'm not so sure. And in comparison, William Gass's own impulse to, as we say, haul off and hit somebody seems almost the stuff of eminently humanistic learning.


Terry Caesar's last column was about dogs in classrooms.


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