No longer representative of one’s knowledge and skills, higher-learning credentials have become simply certificates of attendance.
April draws to a close, and upon its heels approaches May. As this happens, I find myself in the midst of a change of seasons, professionally speaking. The sun is setting on my career as a university instructor, which in one form or another (graduate assistant or adjunct lecturer) I have been for ten years. The vagaries of adjunct life have left me without the prospect of teaching for the summer or fall terms, and I find myself lacking the motivation to approach other schools in the area, just to nail down a section (or two if I’m lucky) at a wage rate staggeringly incommensurate with my level of education. (This sentiment is rooted not so much in personal vanity as personal finances. I’ve loans to pay back, you see, for the privilege of living essentially as a journeyman forced to wander from one smithy of the intellect to the next peddling my skills.)
I can’t say that I’m sorry to leave teaching. Quite the contrary. I couldn’t wait to get out. I’d only stuck with it for this long because circumstances in my life were such that I required and could afford part-time work, and because a certain natural inertia was in play. I’d been teaching long enough to have streamlined my course content and its delivery, which makes me feel kind of like a comedy tour comic. He leaves Vegas to take his act on the road. Every new audience means new life for his jokes.
It became apparent to me early on that I was temperamentally unsuited for teaching. I attended one of those pressure-cooker prep schools as a teenager, one which placed great store by the college acceptance rates of its graduates. Anything less than 100 percent acceptance the school deemed an abject failure, if for no other reason that a lesser showing severely crimped how much tuition it could demand from parents the following academic year. Encouraged to keep students’ eyes on the prize, the faculty of my high school turned university into an object of veneration. The “cult of college” instilled in us all the awe and fear for institutions of higher learning of the sort which folks usually reserve for their Maker. We were regaled with cautionary tales about the hazards of university life, which were nothing short of Bunyanesque. Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond lurked on campuses throughout the nation, threatening to ensnare us, and, even if we prevailed against them, we still had university professors with whom to contend. To us students the latter were represented as a sort of priest class, aloof and concerned more with the health of their chosen discipline than with the conditions of the minds and hearts of the genuflecting faithful. The austerities of my prep school, in short, existed to discipline us to the realities of university matriculation. So mote it be.
I thus carried with me to college a healthy fear of the institution and its functionaries. Professors, I believed, could only be approached for two reasons: either that of dire emergency or that of urgently relevant concern for course matter. I never thought to trouble my professors with personal matters or to vex them with whatever delays or hang-ups these matters might occasion — a reasonable assumption, since due dates hardly came as a surprise, announced as they were in writing on the first day of class. And, though I might disagree with a grade a professor gave an assignment of mine, though I might even think it monstrously unjust, I never challenged it. Instead I went into damage-control, devising ways to improve my grade so as to save my GPA’s bacon.
For all its in retrospect somewhat wretched abasement, this attitude served me well. After a few missteps early on — dropping out of schools here and there — I managed to make a respectable academic showing. Once I entered graduate school and began to teach lower-division courses, however, I soon came to understand that this habitus instill in me during my formative years was quite a bit less than universal.
Songs of innocence gave way to songs of experience. Every semester I have taught since my neophyte graduate school days has followed a more or less uniform progression. My students would initially be on their best behavior — the best behavior they were capable of, that is — until they sussed out how strict or officious I was likely to be with regard to course policies. After shopping composition instructors during the “Drop–Add” period, they would then begin to reveal their true tendencies and deficiencies , which were typically an almost bullying indifference to anything I have to say or direction I have to give, childlike restlessness and inattentiveness, chronic absence, slack work habits, minimal command of written English, and so on.
These tendencies I admit dismayed me greatly. But the most discouraging fact was that I came to know thoroughly and completely what to expect but was powerless to change anything about what was to transpire to pass over the subsequent sixteen weeks. It was as if I was a condemned inmate who somehow miraculously survived the first attempt at my execution, but, instead of a pardon for enduring what I endured, I am told that the sentence must be carried out in a second attempt. And thus I am brought back in that same corridor, having just enjoyed my final meal for a second time; the same priest walks beside me, mouthing prayers and benedictions, and I glimpse once again at the end of the now familiar corridor, in a dim brick room, a utility closet of death, the instrument of my demise awaiting me as expectant pie-faced gawkers look on.
It was, in other words, the predictable hollowness of the whole affair more than any other factor that burned me out. I can no longer stomach the drearily absurd theater of it all and the complex, many-layered, and studied misrecognitions this theater required. In his book Language and Symbolic Power French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines symbolic power as
a power of constituting the given through utterances, of making people see and believe, of confirming or transforming the vision of the world and, thereby, action on the world and thus the world itself, an almost magical power which enables one to obtain the equivalent of what is obtained through force (whether physical or economic), by virtue of the specific effect of mobilization.
Though I was aware of Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power, having encountered it in my graduate studies, the efficient wielding of it was, I confess, something to which my students had to introduce me. For them, it was sufficient that I stand in the front of the class, make remarks and observations on the text assigned for that day, call on people at regular intervals and ask occasionally if anyone had questions. They were content with this repertoire of gestures and noises that produce “learning effects” or a “classroom experience.”
Whatever learned insights I offered into literature were devoted more toward constituting the given of my presence in the classroom in terms of its social, cultural and economic legitimacy, than they were to bringing young minds to the pleasure of the text.
In fact, these were all they required. They would swiftly and remorsely seek to punish any instructor who believed that there was anything more of substance to university education than the kabuki devised to fill the four years’ time one must serve in order to get her diploma. Whatever learned insights I offered into literature were devoted more toward constituting the given of my presence in the classroom in terms of its social, cultural and economic legitimacy, than they were to bringing young minds to the pleasure of the text. Indeed, the latter was almost entirely beside the point, having no practical value in terms of ascending to middle-class status, a goal for which the university is the U.S.’s sole remaining mechanism.
I myself have been at the business end of such a vendetta. My last year as an instructor at a certain state university west of the Mississippi River, a student of mine, whom I one day informed that Hinduism historically antedates Christianity, reported me to her mother, who in turn gave my name to some ultra-right watchdog group that then harassed me by sending me an intimidating letter. Mother and daughter’s grounds for doing so: that in hatred and defiance of Gospel truth I proclaimed Hinduism superior to Christianity.
Besides the fact that you cannot trust non-denominational charismatics — for they speak in tongues, all of which are forked — I learned from the whole affair that you cannot credit Americans with discretion or discernment, especially young ones, for the simple reason that whatever words of mine manage to slip past their iPod earbuds just gets swept up in the cognitive slurry of their constantly channel-surfing minds. I make this assessment based on instructor training I received early in my grad-assistant career, during which I was told to keep activities short and animated to accommodate the average freshman’s seven-second attention span, and to change the activities every ten minutes so the class might more closely resemble a television show. Ask anyone who has taught freshman-level course and I’m sure they’ll say the same. Many students had learning disabilities — euphemistically called “different skill sets” by administrative mandarins (though as to how the inability to write a coherent sentence actually points to an ability in some as yet undiscovered area I remain unsure) — and nearly as many were on some sort of medication, usually Adderall, an SSRI, or some combination of the two. This suggested to me that, wherever their skill sets lie, they’re not in the area of reason, ethics, or even self-control.
Perceived as the relic of an era in which people had little else at their disposal to beguile their leisure, academics becomes as obsolete as the dusty Commodore VIC-20 in one’s parents’ attic.
With very few exceptions, my students over the years have been defiantly and professedly complacent, and I can’t help but think them spectators of their own lives for being so. But they have been duped into thinking that this passivity has allowed them to penetrate what they see as the irrelevance of academics, and thus has made them hipper, savvier. The ideology of corporatization, which to all outward appearances has consolidated it dominion over institutions of higher learning across the nation, now sees to the apportioning of spoils to the victor and the hindmost to the devil (the devil being the common rout of humanity), while the hapless majority have been snookered into believing that critical thinking and writing are simply passé, like the talents of the blacksmith or wheelwright, which find a market only in the incredibly small domain of touristy pioneer village mock-ups. Perceived as the relic of an era in which people had little else at their disposal to beguile their leisure, academics becomes as obsolete as the dusty Commodore VIC-20 in one’s parents’ attic. Thus confronted with having to deal with the rigors and demands of a mode of inquiry that to them has no perceivable connection to the cash nexus, today’s university student reacts with impatience and hostility, itching to move on to the more practical concern of enhancing his future earning power, which, though he may not have the foggiest idea how this is acquired, to his mind certainly does not involve Avogadro’s number, the Battle of Hastings or iambic pentameter.
Anton would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at generationbubble [at] gmail [dot] com.