Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Indoctrination

A siege mentality can lead to dishonesty. If you feel that you and your cohorts are attacked unfairly and that your way of living or way of being is under existential threat, you will fight not only illegitimate criticisms directed at you, but also legitimate ones that you have taught yourself not to believe. And this is the logic of...Why am I even bothering? This is obvious.

Of all the criticisms of the humanities, the one that stings the most is the accusation that our departments are dedicated to indoctrination. We don't teach our students the methods that will allow them to come up with good theses on their own. We tell our students what to think and if they disagree with us, then they will receive a lower grade. "You think that white supremacy should maintain a relatively narrow definition confined to conscious KKK-level racists and not be applied to systemic racism? F." I use this example because I think it's instructive. I personally believe the term "white supremacy" can be applied to the prison industrial complex and redlining, that it should have a wide definition, but I would be willing to hear an argument from a student about why the term "white supremacy" should retain a narrow definition. If that student could back that argument with evidence while also acknowledging the arguments against it, I would consider giving that student an A.

The truth is a lot of what I do could be called indoctrination, if of a relatively benign sort. In a class I used to teach, I opened by having the students read Spider-Man comics from the 1960s.  I ask the students to focus on a formalist analysis of the comics and to develop an argument of what Spider-Man represents a character. Later I teach Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, a portrait of teenage girls suffering through their ennui in a strange, lonely suburban world. If I maintain a focus on form and character analysis, slightly divorced from social milieu, while not exploring some of the harder questions of feminism or gender roles, I am leading the students in a specific direction. Now, if I have a student who wants to apply a feminist reading to either of these comics for her paper, I allow him or her to do so. But I will admit that the design of my class has determined much of how my students will read these texts. You may not like my approach and you may have a good argument against it. Still, I allow the students to go in their own directions if they ask. I allow them to say "no." 

I don't want to shut down my colleagues. I don't want to tell them what they should and shouldn't teach. The discourses on various strands of lefty politics are diverse and difficult and are worth hearing and teaching. And despite the stereotype, I will say that nowhere near the majority of my colleagues are seeking to indoctrinate their students in the classic sense. 

Still, here are some rules for teachers:

1. If for every 500 words in a paper, your student repeats three or four sentences you have used in class, your immediate reaction should not be, "This is brilliant." It should be, "I don't need a stenographer."

2. If more than a quarter of your students complain on the student evals, "The teacher only wanted us to agree with him," your reaction should not be, "What do they know!" It should be, "Well, let me go over some of what I have done in the past." Your answer might end up being "What do they know!" and you may still be in the right. But if you absolutely refuse to consider that criticism, there may be a problem.

3. If a student complains, "Are we allowed to say anything?" your immediate reaction should be, "What do you want to say that you feel you can't say?"

4. If you ever read accounts of trials of dissidents in the former Soviet Union and you think the prosecutors had a point, you should find a new job.

5. Don't ever stop asking yourself the question, "Am I teaching them how to think or what to think?" Don't. Ever. Stop. Asking. That. Question.

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