A short note to friends on the WPA listserv
Hello, John & Maria
Your comments are making me think more deeply about syllabi than I had ever intended this week. But again, let me highly recommend Jeff Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds
. Schmidt concretely frames the ways in which people are unavoidably indoctrinated into whatever bureaucracy in which they exist.
Schmidt takes particular aim at graduate school structures. He gives readers specific examples of how people shift and are imperceptibly absorbed into the structures they inhabit. Bourdieu’s concept of structuring structures is useful here.
I’ll be replying to you, mostly, John—but my claims might also speak to Maria. If you read the themes I endlessly post on my blog, you will see that I’m a crazy advocate of writing as pleasure. I just don’t get into this writing as hard-work ethos. Within this frame, I rarely meet students who don’t want to play with writing. Given the right kind of writing situation, students want to write. I’ll just make that claim—and it’s my experience. I make as my primary objective when students enter my class, getting the students to enjoy their writing experience in our class. I assess the success of my class primarily on that basis. If I/we fail, then it’s time to rethink/restructure. I do this by listening to the students about their interpretations of what worked, what didn’t.
Already, I can see that this line of thinking leads to other lines that will make this post too too too long. I’m going to try to generalize: to some extent, we’re in charge of what we “teach” (Freire and Dewey note the problem with that verb, but let me use it). The degree to which we are in charge is framed by our rhetorical situation—and how we read it (Schmidt has a lot to say about this—pretty good for a physicist). We know there is a social hierarchy in English departments. The hierarchy creates exploitive labor structures: the boss compositionist theme. At any rate, we (please let me use the royal we: I’m not a fan of people/they) all fit in somewhere and have to make our own decisions on the degree to which we will do things we think are stupid. We were all graduate students once, let along undergraduates. You are of course right, John—it’s a lot easier for full professors to thumb their noses at idiocy than non-tenured assistant professors or adjuncts. But still . . .
(Schmidt got fired after he published DM).
I think (and Schmidt argues this) there are ways to resist. We have to choose our battles and modes of resistance. We all know there is A LOT to resist. For my money, grades and tests are at the top of the list. Likewise, coerced labor from students. Let’s just keep reading Dewey and trying to find ways to make learning and writing a pleasure (that does not mean devoid of challenge): it means learning and writing as game (not playing games).
Yes, as the teacher, I make decisions on what we’re doing in the classroom—but as others here have noted, we need to pay attention to our students and be ready to shift course. We have to keep our ears to the ground when we teach. Freire wrote quite a bit about the difference between being an authority (and not pretending you’re not) and authoritarianism.
I’m going to create a link to my syllabus for the quarter. I am sure it will seem to contradict everything I’ve written here. I view the syllabus as largely an articulation of the social structure within which I am playing a sort of game. One of my smart friends in this conversation spoke quite a bit about the different audiences syllabi address. She was right on. If you read my syllabus from that frame, you can probably see which parts are for students, which for the chair, dean, and so on. I spend about ten minutes on this syllabus, hitting those student parts and then we start writing. (The numbers in the daily activities part signify minutes).