Wednesday, September 12, 2007

9/11 Memories and Academic Freedom

Warning: Non-medieval content ahead.

Veteran Wordhoarders might recall that I have no particular memories of September 11th, 2001. But I'm not the only one.

My daughter came home from school to complain about all the 9/11 remembrance activities, ostensibly to help them cope with such a traumatic event. The event she found most irritating was the assignment their English teacher gave: To write about what they remember about the terrorist attacks.

Why would she complain? Because the oldest kids in her class were six years old at the time; she was five. She has no memories of the events. For her, 9/11/01 is about as significant a date as 12/7/41. None of her friends remember the events at all.

"So," I asked, "what did you do? Did you tell the teacher? I mean, she's going to have to retire the assignment in the next year or two."

"No," she replied, "we just made something up. We all said we were drawing." I wondered aloud about whether or not the teacher thought it was strange everyone in the class had been drawing at the same time.

This started me thinking about academic freedom. From the professors' perspective, academic freedom tends to mean something like "I should have the right to do whatever I please in my classroom," rather than having anything to do with students' rights. I don't want to focus here, however, on how self-serving that definition is -- after all, professors are hardly the only people prone to cornpone ideas -- but rather to remember the distinction in the debate that we are talking about the professor's rights, rather than the students' rights.

I know my daughter's teacher who made the assignment because she did graduate work in our department. She's not an ogre, nor does my daughter think of her as an ogre. Still, the students in the class felt that it was in their best interest to lie and make up false memories rather than disappoint the teacher. Why?

It all comes down to power. Though professors (and middle school teachers) often feel dis-empowered, in the classroom we rule as despots. Aside from the fact that we have the power to issue poor grades, we also have the power to humiliate, to ignore, to elevate, to speak, to remain silent ... we have lots of tools at our disposal, and we should judiciously use what tools we have.

I suppose that's why I find some of the discuss about academic freedom in the classroom so distasteful: because it comes from the person in the classroom who has most of the power. My daughter's teacher no doubt thought she was allowing the students to do something cathartic, but because of the power she has over the students, none were willing to point out the error. I doubt there would have been any chance of retribution against a student who had pointed out that they were too young to be engaged with current events at that moment, nor do I think any of the students feared it. Yet, because of the difference in power, the students were so eager to please her that students who would never consider cheating or plagiarizing decided to make stuff up.

I don't have a gentle hand in the classroom. When I walk into the room, I'm on a mission to teach something predetermined: how to write a thesis statement, basic MLA documentation, what a "foil" is, how traces of gnostic philosophy show up in medieval literature, etc. I'll do darn near anything it takes to teach that lesson to my students. Most appreciate it, I think, and realize how hard I'm working, but some understandably want a gentle touch.

My daughter's experience shows me how easy it is to forget the power we have over our students, and how, by exercising our academic freedom, we can sometimes quash the freedoms of students. A kind smile, a look of disapproval, a moment of obvious irritation -- all of these are fleeting in the minds of the professors, but they can be devastating or uplifting lifelong memories to the students. I suspect that often students' complaints of classroom indoctrination are less a function of shadowy forces aligned against academe than they are a function of professors forgetting the power we have over students.

So, just a reminder, to myself as much as the other academics out there: In the eyes of many students, we are impossibly brilliant, infallible creatures. As the pearls fall from our lips, the swine grub about in the dirt for them. We wield god-like power to grant access into the middle class, or to damn them with faint grades. A single phrase in a letter from one of us can be the difference between grad school and none, between the good job and the mediocre.

And, to the student Wordhoarders out there: Believe it or not, your professor is a human. Students always seem surprised to see me at Walmart buying groceries.* We eat, sleep, and dream. We feel anxiety before the beginning of the semester. If too many of you fail a class, we feel ourselves as failures. We don't think our words are pearls, and we don't see you as swine. To a professor, gradings isn't an exercise in power; it's a bureaucratic chore. Letters of recommendation are usually just templates in our heads, that we give out in the hope that our students, our very own, will achieve great success. You know that little aside comment your professor made about how much he hates such-and-such a politician or how stupid people are who hold a particular position? Yes, he might be trying to indoctrinate you -- but it's more likely that he's having a bad day, and wanted to vent about something. Whenever possible, please give us the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes we forget how hard you are trying to please us.

*I often hear this during these accidental encounters: "You buy groceries here?" I wonder where they think I get my groceries ... maybe some secret faculty club buried under the campus?

1 comment:

  1. Anywhere but Walmart!

    I think we're in a rather different situation as college faculty than are public school as we generally have far more latitude in what we teach and how we teach it. Having seen "No Child Left Behind" up close in my years in Houston and the disaster it has wrought (and is creating across the country now), I'm acutely aware of the differences between our lot and theirs. The teacher may have had no say whatsoever in that assignment, having had it imposed from above.

    That said, yes, of course we should be aware of the power we wield. I'd hardly characterize it as despotism -- our careers (particularly at teaching institutes) are largely mandated by students. We all know of colleagues who receive good reviews because they hand out As with a free hand and ask little of their charges. Those of us who challenge students and forgo multiple choice exams may not rest so easy in our despotic throne.

    I think the majority of people who go into teaching do so because they believe in it as an important if not sacred duty. Largely because they're poorly paid, held in low regard, snubbed as snobs and dismissed as elitist.

    There are indeed bad teachers -- I always remember Richard Brautigan's words that many of his teachers might well have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from him. It's a good corrective to keep in mind, but flagellation? Not for me.