The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

What do you do with a lectern that burns?

Dearly Beloved,

As some empirical scientists might report, the sun is shining, the birds and the bees are bumpin’ uglies and every last bit of the 20 foot snow pile in the Kum & Go parking lot has effectively melted. Spring is finally upon us, and Spring Break is officially over. Now is the time to buckle down and earn our keep. Instead of breaking out the towels, sun block and Bucket-o-Margarita, we’ve got to start putting all of those second mortgages, trustee scholarships and FAFSA bell grants to work.

For some that might mean putting in those extra secret hours on Burling 5th trying to find the perfect 18th century beauty product magazine advertisement for your History of Nearly Irrelevant Obscurities seminar, or for others it might signal only a dozen or so more cram-jam sessions left for trying to fashion your blown glass Watson and Crick double-helix replica into a functional piece of drug paraphernalia. However, for me it indicates something of a different sort. It marks the beginning of the end of this whole college shaboom shaboom, and the need to kick these Dream Living interrogations up a couple of DEFCON worry-wart points before the Future makes its Blitzkreig.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking of. With all this rising pressure to camp out in GenComp and tough through our finals like an Oscar De la Hoya sparring partner, my concerns have been growing increasingly more ‘meta’. What is it about the taking-classes-thing in general that has been good, bad, ugly or useful? Are there any profound maxims that I’ve learned about learning over the course of my….. learning? Can I take this printed-media opportunity to work through some concerns that I have about the future of academics at Grinnell College and about how to keep them out of the gutter? Of course I can, because this is my newspaper column and I have only so many chances left to be so diatribically opinionated.

Here are some thoughts. A few weeks back, a professor made a comment that struck my fancy. This talented scholar (whom is luckily from my own department) brought it to the attention of an all-campus audience that professors, a lot like students, are really actually just people—people with responsibilities, desires and reputations to uphold much like anyone that you would more or less find anywhere.

Now, I will make a David Foster Wallace-sized caveat and ask you to refrain from shooting me—the messenger—for having only just yet simply stated nothing other than the obvious. What continues to resonate with me from what this professor said is how this similarity, this parallel in realities between students and professors, is a dynamic frequently effaced over the course (no pun intended) of our time here. Theory jargon aside, what I mean here is that there is a tendency on both sides of the divide to disengage pedagogue and pupil from the very present realities that each of them share by virtue of their being real people in the same place with similarly disparate needs. I think there is very often a veil of ignorance placed over the fact that students and teachers might have more to talk about than just what’s been highlighted on paper.

Here’s where I try to be consistent with the logic of my project and more or less cover my ass by admitting ignorance about the classes I’ve never taken and the students and professors whose experiences might prove wrench-like when thrown into the systemic flow of my theory. Ok good. Now granting efficacy to my sneaking suspicions and hunches, let’s examine an example of what I’m referring to. Say you’re in such-and-such class about so-and-so topic with whose-a-face up in front as the teacher. You’re assigned this reading and that writing assignment to better your engagement with the subject. Why? Well, it’s on the syllabus of course, and that’s probably all you need to know. Maybe it’s canonical according to leaders of the field, or maybe it’s brand-spanking new and meriting our analysis.

Any of these would be a perfect opportunity to dive into the dark murk depths of the cracks in this relationship in a way sympathetic to Professor X’s aforementioned analysis. How frequently do class and teacher ever discuss the point of their assignments, the means of production that go into influencing course material, course assignments and even the overall structure of the experience? Who points their radar at the underlying conflicts and forces going to work in a classroom dynamic to make it stuffy, awkward and dry or vibrant, provoking and intense? And what is even more, why is it that students and professors alike seem so patient with keeping up the “business as usual” of making the classroom a place designated for the production of only very specific kinds of knowledges? I hope I am not just conjuring up this skepticism, because it seems rather apparent over here on my side of the court.

Maybe there isn’t any desire to give classes this kind of self-conscious facelift, which I guess is ok, except that what I’m ostensibly trying to do here is make a value judgment. I’d like to be able to say that if classroom experiences were ones that encouraged students and professors to make themselves psychologically vulnerable to each other, they would also be more open to the project of creating a self-aware journey qua learning, which would ultimately be better for the whole sha-bang. I might not even be alone in this regard, which means maybe it’s only a lack of available tools and vocabulary that keeps students and professors from going at the underpinnings of whatever it is that structures our course dynamics.

Now, you might be thinking, “What kind of alternative scenario are you looking for here, Hederman? It sounds like you want to take the rigorous academic work specific to each discipline and classroom and turn it into group-therapy.” To this I might respond, “Not just yet, bro-donculous.” Here we are in the heartland of America with ourselves, Daddy Warbucks, Uncle Sam or even Roger Foger class of ’69 footin’ the bill for this not so ‘limitless’ educational opportunity. But why pay such a boatload of money to not even take the time to “talk about talking” and “think about thinking” in classes where the chance is readily available?

Sure your basic survey intro courses might need to pay respectfully “holler back” at European style auditorium lectures reminiscent of mandatory high school assemblies, but the rest of the student faculty ratio ought to pull up its britches and get its hands dirty. I think the unique opportunities offered in a place as small and close-knit as Grinnell allow for the possibility for us to do more than just textual summary and regurgitation. Why not also try to make transparent the baggage that students and teachers bring with them to this supposedly ‘liberal’ arts hullaballoo?

Obviously it’s an ongoing process that would probably require a re-evaluation of the aims of our whole educational experience at this college, but perhaps I’m not so opposed to such a grandiose revolutionary proposal. Here is where I admit my tendencies towards a half-baked Marxism in my call for not just a form of pseudo class-consciousness, but also a “course-consciousness” of sorts—a consciousness where participants engage in working through the troublesome material reality facing their classroom environments.

Students and professors are all real people with real problems that they bring with them to the process of becoming better educated. Perhaps if we can re-learn how to accommodate the reality of these personal differences we might also learn how to think differently. None of us are clean slates ready for informational storage and retrieval, sponges for the soaking, putty for the molding or any other caricature-ization posited by a strictly positivist reduction.
There’s more work to be done in the classroom than simply passing the torch of Knowledge from one generation to the next. If we can start to take the time to give other aspects of this ol’ education the attention that they deserve, maybe then we’ll be “living the dream.”

Not satisfied? Deal with it.

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