A happy coincidence that Infinite Thought should tag me with this meme when I’ve just finished grading a stack of papers and so been thinking a bit about what I’m doing when I’m teaching. This semester I’ve been teaching an introductory writing course, which is apparently a fixture of American universities, but is perhaps particularly important somewhere like Berkeley, where new students have such a wide range of writing abilities. There are, of course, structural reasons for this, including the fairly large number of students who don’t speak English at home (but who may never have received formal education in any other language), and the appalling underfunding of California’s public schools; but it’s interesting to see how these structures manifest themselves, because they don’t simply appear as an absence. That is, it’s not, strictly speaking, that those students who struggle haven’t been taught to write; they’ve all, or almost all, attended school for 13 years, after all. But during those 13 years, they have been taught to write badly. It seems like it would be an interesting research project in the sociology of knowledge to figure out how this happens. Everyone in the world knows that the five-paragraph-essay structure is stupid and harmful, yet students still get taught it. It’s aggravating; students would come to my office hours with incredibly interesting and insightful responses to the stuff we’d read, but be completely incapable of expressing themselves on paper (and, if it’s aggravating for me, it must be many times worse for them).
On with the meme. I’m asked to “post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what you are most passionate for students to learn about.” I’ve chosen one of my favorite pictures, although one I know almost nothing about, a picture of a library after an air raid, from London in 1940. I’m not very good at teaching transferrable skills, or engaging students, or caring about them as individuals; in other words, the sorts of things I’m supposed to do in the neoliberal university, with its odd unity of trade school and finishing school (I suppose it’s not so odd; these are both ways of making yourself marketable). What I do care about is what the students think about politics and philosophy; or that they think about these things, in other words, that they entertain the possibility that a certain kind of reflective or critical thought about their opinions might have some value of its own. Or, to return to the picture, I want to get across the idea that it might not be completely insane to respond to a bomb by walking to the library.
The meme also requires me to ask some other “educators” to participate. I hate the word “educator,” partly because it’s a four syllable synonym for the two syllable word “teacher,” and partly because of its slightly creepy teleology; you can’t be an educator, after all, unless you have the power to render people educated. But some other people whose thoughts on education I’m always interested in are Nate and Jasper (who also recently wrote a great post on the material preconditions of Berkeley introductory writing courses, that I so cheerfully glossed over above). Anyone else who reads this and wants to engage in some picture-thinking should consider themselves invited, too.