Saturday, January 23, 2016

On Hurting Students

I have made it a point through the years to avoid discussing my students both for good or for ill on social media or in any of my other writing.  I don't believe the classroom is an absolute private space, but I believe it should be semi-private.  As a teacher, I need to be able to take a risk and fall flat on my face without fearing public humiliation outside the classroom.  My students deserve that same right.  I have many colleagues who feel differently, who make fun of students who grade grub, students who write ignorant things on their papers, students who behave inappropriately in class.  No, they don't use names, but it still makes me uncomfortable.  If a student discovered that a teacher complained about him or her even without using a proper name, I imagine that student would feel miserable.  Many of these colleagues are great teachers, certainly more skilled in their craft than I am in mine, as well as great and generous people, which only makes that behavior more unsettling.

I always lay out these ideas on the first day of each quarter.  I tell my students that I believe a classroom is a semi-private space in which we can take risks and fall flat on our faces.  In order that we maintain such a space, I tell them that it is important that both they and I refrain from discussing each other on social media.  I don't know how well they take it or whether they walk away shocked that a teacher would ever feel the need to set such a rule.  Still, in the current climate, in which the noise of the outside world grows ever louder, impinging on the classroom, I find it necessary to do so.    

We were assigned Death in Venice in my senior year of high school.  I don't think there is anything wrong with assigning Death in Venice.  I think it is a good, interesting novel and that it considers sexuality at an intriguing slant, but the conversation in the classroom led by a woman I always thought of as an intelligent if elitist white feminist was shot through with ignorance.  The love object in the novel is a beautiful 14-year-old boy, and we readers, as we were told in the classroom, were supposed to consider the irony inherent in an old German writer whose prose was filled with intelligence but no eroticism, falling in love with such an object.  I heard plenty of snickers about the whole thing throughout that class, and at one point our teacher brought in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue to show us that the Tadzio ideal existed today.  She laughed at the prospect.  

Let's unpack that.  There were gay kids in that classroom, ages 17-18.  I was one of them.  There were gay kids in that classroom who might have shown a passing interest for some of their schoolmates who were 14 or 15, just as their straight classmates had shown a passing interest for freshman girls.  If not, those gay kids had almost certainly been attracted to 14-15 year olds when they were themselves 14 or 15.  If our teacher really had any guts and really wanted to see the Tadzio ideal, she could have gone to the gay bookstore in Dupont Circle and picked up a copy of XY, a magazine geared toward the gay teenage set, a magazine I read surreptitiously.  Was there anything intrinsically wrong about being attracted to a 14-15 year old especially if you were 17-18?  I don't think so.  But I was around a lot of people who believed differently.  On some level we were reading the novel on its own terms, which is fine, but that conversation was profoundly ignorant and that ignorance was reflected in the conversation in that classroom.  Is it possible to read that novel non-ironically?  I think the novel could allow for such a reading, but to make that claim in that classroom would have earned you a savage and disgusted look from the authority figure before you and your classmates.  

Was I the only one who felt that way? I may have been.  Did I deserve to feel bad about myself because of that conversation?  No.  Perhaps I was misreading the conversation.  Perhaps my memory today misses some key moments in the conversation that, had I paid better attention, would have made my discomfort less terrible.  Still, I remember two students behind me saying faggot.  Our teacher created an environment that made that ok.

Now let's flash forward to last October.  I assigned my students an infamous late-'80s Batman comic The Killing Joke which includes a brutal violation of a woman's body, a comic which later on became a focal point for a feminist backlash to superhero comics.  Visual media can be, probably is more visceral than the printed word, and I can only imagine those images might have been terrible for a woman - or man for that matter - who had suffered any kind of sexual violation.  I did not lead the conversation very well.  I apologized for those images.  I laughed nervously.  I steered away from those pages to discuss other parts of the comic, which is probably the last thing I should have done.  I was admittedly underprepared to discuss those images.  I took a risk.  I fell flat on my face.  And I may have hurt some students.   

Will I teach The Killing Joke again?  I think I will, and I will come in next time better prepared, armed with more research, so that when I take that risk, I won't fail and my students will walk away with a better understanding of the text. 

The media is raging at these entitled Millennials who don't want to read books that hurt their feelings.  Women at Columbia complained that their rights were violated by having to read about a rape scene in Ovid.  From personal experience, I've heard some uncomfortable stories here and there, but I tend not to hear such rage from any of my students, even after assigning them such material.  They may be desensitized to this material, which is a problem.  They may be cowed by my authority, which is a problem.  Or they may be mature enough to handle disturbing material and an awkward underprepared teacher who sometimes makes them feel bad about themselves.   

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