Sunday, March 27, 2011

Against Professor X

In this political climate, it's tempting to say nothing about teachers or teaching other than politicians should stop messing with us, stop lying about how we created your problems, just stop. At the same time, as this article points out, a lack of a real progressive discussion about the real challenges and failures of teaching causes lots of smart and well-meaning people to get sucked into the current vogue style of "reform." It doesn't work, but at least people seem do be doing something, right? Whereas lefties are usually left to say, nothing will change unless fundamental inequalities change, but because people don't have hope that this can, they hear this as a surrender to the status quo.

So, I guess I should preface what I have to say about this article by saying, the exploitation of adjuncts is a scandal, and also that we should be wary of expecting all teachers to be heroic, and I respect teachers being realistic and self-critical about what they achieve.

That said, "Professor X"'s original piece in The Atlantic, and this excerpt from his book are truly crazy making. They are basically an account of someone failing at a job and therefore determining that the job can't be done by anyone, anywhere. Maybe it's in the book someone, but in neither of these pieces is there ever a hint of something like, "I tried this, it didn't work, so I tried this." There's not even really anything about teaching - he mostly describes handing out assignments and then his anxiety about how to handle their inevitable failure. The portraits of the students are generalized and stereotypical and give you a sense he didn't get to know them very well - which isn't his fault - as an adjunct with a day job, this would be very, very difficult to do. But if you're going to write a book about teaching, one that will most likely lead readers to conclude that there's no point in trying to make higher education available to working-class students, you have to be self-aware about what's going on. Maybe there's more context in the full book, but in both these pieces, there is fake self-criticism ("I feel so bad about giving Fs, but I do it because I believe in standards") but no real analysis (if "whole classes" are failing, is that really because they are so woefully unprepared, or that there is something wrong with the way I'm preparing them and/or assessing their work?) There's a little bit about how unprepared he is, but instead of calling for better training for adjuncts or trying to learn himself, he figures that there just must be nothing to be done. In the original Atlantic piece, he laments the students' inability to do research, but is profoundly uncurious about learning anything about teaching, and doesn't consider that his pedagogy (at least twenty years out of date when it comes to composition) might be a problem. And he knows that the likes of David Brooks, who blurbs his book, will praise his 'hard truths' when, like the 'hard truths' of a Chris Christie, they are the exact opposite of telling truth to power - they are telling power exactly what it wants to hear. For all that the "reformers" talk about every kid succeeding, there's the point at which you know they don't believe it. What they want is a way to be able to sort kids into successful and not successful with a good conscience. In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain points to a study that says the most universally held quality of great professors is that they believe students can learn. They believe it's their job to teach all of them, wherever they're starting from, not to sort them. Of course there's a difference between graduate students and undergrad majors, between undergrad majors and folks in a survey, but you treat all of them seriously. This should be obvious, but if you don't believe your students have a right to be in college, things look different.

ETA: Looks like if anything I was too easy on Prof X. . . . In this great common sense response,
Lorraine Berry says much of what I'm saying here, with examples from her own teaching. . . apparently Prof X. also thinks the problem is that caring women are too nice to fail their students. Not like our manly Prof X. Glad to know I wasn't imagining the sexism of the Atlantic piece (he actually says his students have too high a sense of their abilities because of Oprah.) Some folks have written about the sexism of the current attacks on teachers. It's a dark triumph of propaganda that's managed to paint a female-dominanted profession as one of self-satisfied incompetents, because, while of course women teachers and women in all professions have the normal ranges of success, one thing women tend not to do is write books about how much they suck at their jobs and expect to be praised as truth-tellers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The End of Don?

Now that the long form television as 19th-century meme has official reached its stunning apex (though I still think the Wire is more Zola than Dickens), it seems appropriate to be reminded that the two forms are also classic examples of all that can happen when art and commerce collide: from piracy and fanatical enforcing of spoilers bans to things like this. So, on the off, unbearable to think about possibility that there is to be no season 5, we are left with these thoughts: If this were really the end, and the official end of Don is that he goes off into the sunset with Megan, does this represent a very meta ending about the final triumph of the ultimate pitch? Or better yet, did Weiner set up his negotiating position perfectly: ie make an ending that cannot possibly be the ending, so that he really really really has to be brought back at any price. Of course not: networks don't care about the deep existential confusion brought about by the possibility that Megan is the last word on Don. Still, 2012 is a long way off; it's hard not to give way to all the fallacies of fiction ex-grad students like me should be immune to: where are Don and Megan all this time? By 2012, it'll feel like it's ready to be 1971, at least.