All this is provisional, so take it for what it is worth.
I had a conversation over the weekend with a friend and colleague that has left me a little confused about my own position and I think I need to write down my ideas before I let them fall away into the mists of time.
See, I regularly have problems with students and TAs, though I have noticed over the years that there is a common pattern. The people I have problems with tend to be young men. With one notable exception, they tend to be young men who are generally quite gifted or good at their job, yet nevertheless they bristle under my tutelage. I have always ascribed it to a very gendered position of growing into adult masculinity. As I am an authority figure, the younger man feels he must in some way defeat the older man to assert his adult masculine authority. It’s all very Freudian and all very frustrating because I recognize that Freudian thought is so embarrassingly sexist. Thing is, now I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I might not be setting myself up for this through my own teaching and learning style.
I take as the starting point of all learning the anxiety that one feels when one is faced with a new fact or new piece of information. The new datum must be assimilated into the overarching scheme of the world and thus needs to either be subservient to that scheme or it must change that scheme entirely. As each new data point has the potential to totally overturn the world-view of the learner, the more one invests in learning that particular piece of data, the more anxiety is produced. We want our worlds to be stable because it gives us a sense of identity, yet each new element that we learn, if we learn it with depth and thoughtfulness, has the potential to uproot our entire world and thus our entire sense of who we are as individuals. Anxiety is not to be overcome within a learning environment, but it is to be celebrated because anxiety at the appearance of new data only goes away with the false sense of security that now, I too, own this knowledge. Now, I understand the world. Now, this is how it is.
If you take that moment of anxiety as the starting point of learning (and indeed, in some ways, the goal of education), then you are left at odds with the way that learning is structured and has been theorized in recent decades, which has tended to look at the well-being of the individual learner as a whole being. It is not the case that one is ever wholly a student, but one is a student with a disability, with a certain sexed body, with a hunger because one can’t afford breakfast, with… and so on and so on. The whole being of the student, the recent theories of education have it, must be addressed in order for education to be effective and the conclusion of most of these theories (at least in terms of application) has been to try to ameliorate the very possibility of anxiety. Anxiety and the disorientation that comes of assimilation of new facts are to be avoided insofar as they are apparently detrimental to a student’s mental health. Of course, the most subtle theorists have pointed out that it is not anxiety per se that should be eradicated, but the anxieties attendant upon hunger, bodily difference, trauma, etc that must be eliminated for the student to be able to attend to the problems posed by new information.
The result of this focus on the whole being of the student (student-as-person), rather than the student-as-student, has been the creation of a vast network of ancillary services in universities from food banks and disability resource centres, to books available in alternative formats and sponsored extracurricular clubs that promote health and social well-being like the Quidditch clubs and the Ultimate Frisbee clubs that dot many university campuses. This is all to the good. I do believe that students need to be addressed as whole human beings by the administration of a university (and by government) such that their basic needs are addressed and cared for, so that they can sit in that moment of anxiety caused by the moment of learning. Students need every possible support so that they can understand the world in a way that is different from the way they understood it when they came out of high school.
In this sense, I may sound like a modified, small-L liberal theorist who bandies around terms like “intersectionality” and “identity politics” with some abandon. And you would be right, I do that. The difference with my position vis-a-vis teaching comes back to the disorienting moment of learning.
To me, any moment of learning is ultimately a kind of temporary submission to the contingent and limited authority of an external text, where that text is either a book, a concept, or an individual. When I first started formulating this idea, I focussed on the idea that learning was about the submission to the authority of an expert, but that doesn’t encapsulate what I mean by this relationship. One doesn’t simply do what the educator expects just BECAUSE. That authoritarian model of education, very late 19th century, has been demonstrated to be both ineffective and inculcates a kind of mental dressage that does coercive violence and reinforces systems of hierarchical and unjust power in society. Rather, what I am trying to get across is the far more mundane idea that when we are learning how to do something, we go to experts. Those experts show us how to do X, but they are not the voice of God. We submit to their authority, but eventually we get to the point where we can challenge them by pointing out internal incoherence and inconsistencies in their positions. We do not expect them to be experts in all things, but merely experts over a specific, given area of knowledge. I won’t go to my Orthodontist for car trouble, for instance, I go to my mechanic. When I do go to my mechanic, I will submit to her authority because she has a form of expertise over this specific area of knowledge that I must recognize, otherwise, why am I here in the first place? Similarly, in order to read a book or understand a philosophical position, the way to engage it is to submit to it first, and then start pointing out the flaws of the system once you have, yourself, gained an expertise over it. When you really read a book, you are engaging with another way of worlding. One can simply look at that difference and recognize it as different (in which case, I would argue you have not engaged that difference) or one can approach that difference and try to understand the mechanisms by which that worlding is taking place. You can never think your way into the mind of another (be that through a book or a lecture) but you can try to unpack the modes of thought that led to the conclusion(s) of the other on their own terms. What I am suggesting requires a great deal of humility when approaching texts (be those texts written “texts” or people or ideologies). You must suspend your own approaches and try to understand the other on their terms to the best of your ability and that suspension is a kind of submission to their authority.
Of course, you don’t stay bound by the authority of the other throughout the learning process. If that were true, then the moment of frustration and anxiety that is at the heart of education would be simply overglossed by the satisfaction that one is now “right” because one is following the advice of the “expert.” That moment of humility when approaching a text must necessarily be followed up by a moment of internalization of the “expert” position, which involves critiquing the expert position. Is this expert position internally coherent? Does it mesh with every other aspect of the world as you know it? Is this actually an expert position over a given field or are you taking, say, the financial advice of someone who is an engineer and who has no background in finance? Submission is not permanent, it is not whole, and it is has very clear boundaries.
You can see that, in many ways, this idea is a variation on the deeply and troublingly patriarchal position of medieval biblical exegesis and late 19th C theories of education that posited the teacher as the voice of authority. I will grant you that some aspects of those theories are in here…. And that those theories probably resonate with me because I am a cis-white-settler male. Thing is, the concept of submission to authority, I think, is most applicable to cis-white-settler males insofar as it forces them to listen.
When I was an undergrad (and throughout most of my grad career, if I am perfectly honest), I was a bit of a shit. I talked in class, a lot. As anyone who has had a young man in class who is willing to speak about the text can attest, that is a mixed blessing. I ended up dominating conversation because I wanted to work out orally what I should have already worked out in my head. Also, I felt (whether I recognized it at the time or not) that I had the right to take up that space within the room. The right stemmed (I felt) not from my skin colour or my socio-economic position) but because I was clearly engaged with the text and the other people weren’t.
Of course, now I know (having worked the other side of the table for 10 years) that I wasn’t the only one engaged. I just took up all of the oxygen in the room and left no space for other voices to speak. I did what every cis-white-settler dude does. I didn’t listen, I talked at people.
This is one of the reasons why I think that I have come around to thinking of education in terms of submission, but with a litany of caveats. I needed to submit to the authority and experience of others in the room (not just the teacher but other students), even if I didn’t recognize their authority at the time because I needed to learn that the experience of others had at least as much value as my own. I needed to unlearn my position of power, which, ironically, has only come with the realization of my own position through my own degrees and career. As I have grown, I’ve learned more and more to be silent and to listen to others. I’m not great at it now, but I do wear as a badge of pride the title “acceptable man” given to me by Marcelle K. I am “acceptable” (I think) because I am and want to be an ally and help others gain their voices.
So, how can I reconcile the educational model of submission to authority (even temporary, even contingently, even partially) with the idea that it is my duty to use the systemic powers, with which I have unjustly been invested, to bring out the voices of the silenced and those who do not have power? I don’t know
I do think that the moment of learning is one of humiliation before a text. You have to be humble before a text because that text will, can, and should change the way that you read an entire world. That moment of encounter and engagement with difference must start from a place of humility because, no matter the text, the “you” that engages it at first should not be the “you” that steps away. Learning is always a process of productive self-destruction.
At the same time, I recognize that this rhetoric of humiliation before a text, submission to authority, etc., can (and does) work to reinforce patriarchal and imperial systems of power that do violence, marginalize voices, and encourage injustice. Me, as a cis-white-settler male telling a person of colour or a woman or other marginalized voice to “humiliate themselves before the text” is pretty damned rich. I can afford to provisionally push aside my ego – this is a world that is created for me by men who look like me, so I can always come back to the comforting fiction of the real world if I get tired to accommodating the different modes of thought that are embedded in the text. POCs, women, LGBTQIAA, etc cannot do what I can do, which is to provisionally humiliate myself before a text, provisionally submit to the authority of others, and then happily come back to a place of authority and privilege.
Also, I mean, this entire sketch of the system that I’ve lain out here is so laden with caveats and hedging terms to try to bring together two totally opposite systems of thought that I have to wonder if perhaps there’s any point in this whole project.
So what am I left with? A teaching strategy that only works on some dudes? After all, this whole introspection began with the attempt to try to understand why certain young men are called to challenge my authority. Well, there you are. It is embedded in my actual teaching strategy. I perform authority in such a way that the provisional acceptance of it is a part of the theory. They are just jumping ahead a few steps and questioning my authority before they have a full grasp of the material. It’s right there, embedded in the theory that they should do that.
If I wish to develop a teaching strategy that is truly embracing and which avoids the embedded problems of young men challenging me in this very Freudian manner, then I have to look to the women, the POCs, the LGBTQIAA people in the class. I have to find a way to reconceive of my teaching in a way that recognizes their experience, while at the same time allows for that disorienting, anxious moment that is the heart of learning. Right now, I can’t see a way out of the problem. Yes, you submit to a text and that submission creates anxiety and thus allows for learning. Also yes, marginalized voices don’t need to be told (implicitly or explicitly) to submit to the authority of a text because that is already embedded in their psyches as a structure of this culture. Such a statement would be furthering the goals of an unjust, racist, sexist, and sick culture.
I can’t get rid of the idea that you have to be humble before the text and the discipline, but I can’t get rid of the idea that humiliation and submission to authority is already embedded in the identities of most of my students anyhow.
I guess in some ways, what I am talking about is the theorization of the encounter with difference. It would be so easy to say “Well, white dudes need to submit, but everyone else can encounter these texts on their own terms” but I think that that would be equally problematic and only go to perpetuate the problem because white dudes can still provisionally submit and come back to a position of power when the provision has ended. Perhaps this comes back to the problem I have been thinking about as regards the education of women in the early modern period – how does education work both to reinforce ideological systems that promulgate conservative authority while at the same time undermining those same systems and replacing them with a broader sense of what it is to be human?
Maybe it is a bit like quantum physics and classical, Newtonian physics – two mutually contradistinctive systems that cannot be easily reconciled but are nevertheless referring to two different scales of the same processes. The moment of learning itself is inherently conservative because it relies on submission, humiliation, and selflessness in order to recognize that the new information does not fit into one’s worldview. But the act of learning comes not in the recognition of the disjunctive data that must be assimilated into the worldview, but in the act of assimilation. You can’t escape your own historical and ontological location as a student. Individual bits of information may not fit in the world that you know as a student, but as you fit them in, it isn’t just your own world that grows, but THE world. Perhaps the act of assimilation of new data and recognition of difference as difference, not the anxiety that stems from the lack of assimilation and recognition, is the key aspect of learning. It is the tropological moment. It is the moral moment. It is the way the student assimilates the information into their identity as a human being. THAT is learning.
Of course, that has to happen outside of the classroom.
Ay, there’s the rub.
In education, we can help students with the literal meanings and the typological meanings of a text. We can unpack contextua and develop one’s understanding of individual words over time such that the text becomes more or less “transparent” to the reader. It is not our job to force students to assimilate that knowledge into who they are as an individual. We are not preachers, priests, and councillors. We do not get paid for emotional labour. We are not moral leaders (Well, I’m not a moral leader) and we cannot guide another person into the assimilation of new information. That assimilation has to come from within. It has to be a student-guided, student-centred process. It must also, therefore, be outside of the classroom.
After all, how can I possibly ask a student “How did reading Utopia change you as an individual?” How would I assess that? How could I possibly know? I can’t. The student centred nature of the moral learning that stems from the assimilation of anxious facts is ultimately inaccessible and in-assessible. The movement towards student-centred learning is trying to ensure that this stage of learning is developed – that every student leaves the classroom not the same person who came in, but the problem is that it cannot possibly be known. Moral change (and that really is what we are talking about when we are talking about assimilation of the anxious datum) cannot be assessed and nor should it. It can only be encouraged by individuals taking an interest in and doing emotional work for students. Such change can take a lifetime (and that’s not a bad thing). Such assimilation of data can take several lifetimes to play out across the face of a culture. To assess it within the context of a 12 week course is not only foolhardy, it is asking something of the learning process that is contrary to the way that learning works. Learning, deep learning, is slow. It forms from droplets to stalagmites. The individual student who engages deeply with a text or set of texts and sees themselves change because of that… that is a slow process. I should know. It took me a long time to shut up and listen to those around me.
This has got a lot longer than I intended.
I guess that I have come to the conclusion over the course of this that there are two modes (at least) of learning that I believe in and that I recognize. The first is characterized by submission to a textual authority, but that is only half of the system. It is the only part of the system that can be really assessed, unfortunately, because it is the only part of the learning process that is accessible in any way. Submission take the form of knowing, memorizing, summarizing, etc. and is characterized by the anxiety of being faced with objects of knowledge that are outside of the student’s experience. The second part of the system is directly contrary to this first part, but bizarrely springs out of it. Here, the assimilation of the objects of knowledge that are outside of the student’s experience is the key. How well or poorly these objects of knowledge are assimilated is something that is inaccessible insofar as we cannot put windows into the souls of our students (nor do I particularly want to). The first part of the educational process is conservative in orientation, the second part is radical. The first part is relatively quick, but the second part can take years and years and years. Finally, the outcome of the second part is a changing of the first part. That is, the objects of knowledge themselves change as a part of the process of assimilation into the new worlding of the student, which forces a re-engagement and re-investment in the educational process as a whole. You are never done learning.
Cis-white-settler men are actually at a tremendous advantage for the first part of learning and a terrible disadvantage for the second part. Why? Because although the anxiety that is produced in the initial encounter with new information is the same, the assimilation will be all the easier. The ways cis-white-settler men world (“world” as a verb) are consonant with most forms of new information that will be available in university settings and when they are not, then they can simply retreat from engagement with this information and live in the bubble of their own privilege. For these individuals, the anxiety is easy to overcome because it is easy to assimilate information into something that looks familiar, safe, and heimlich.
For marginalized voices, although submission to the text is consonant with the social structures of submission to authority, the contents of the canonical texts are always going to be alien and thus difficult to assimilate. That moment of encounter may be characterized by submission, but the act of assimilation is characterized by negotiation and adaptation. By their very nature, canonical texts are unheimlich to marginalized voices and that second step of the educational process is dealing with that discomfort on a day to day basis. Scholars of colour, women, LGBTQIAA scholars have to take that initial act of submission to patriarchal authority and (in order to make it resonate with their experience of the world) change it. When it is changed, it becomes a new object of knowledge. When it becomes a new object of knowledge, then the process can start all over again.
Oh geez… did I just argue that cis-white-settler men cannot produce new knowledge? Great. Time to quit my job.
The more a scholar steps outside their comfort zone – the more that one accommodates the voices of those who do not share the same privileges and identity structures that you do – the more you listen, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you change. The more you change, the better you can teach.
So, there is submission (albeit limited) in my theory of education. It is a part of it. But it is only one part of a two pronged theory. The second half is much more nebulous right now, but something I need to think through over the course of the next bit. How does education work as a subversive activity (to quote Postman)? How can it? For whom? Why?
If I want to stop having young men challenge me on such a regular basis, then I have to move away from the pedagogical model that privileges the mode of submission, then challenge, and towards a model that recognizes the life-long process that is learning.