The classroom

I have just finished teaching my two courses for the fall 2016 semester, one an introductory course on human geography and the other a third-year course on theories of international political economy. The end of the semester, especially those few days between the last day of classes and the onset of final exams and papers, always leaves me feeling a little lighter, as the daily grind of class preparation and presentation comes to a close and some portion of my normal routine gets disrupted and opened. What will I do with that extra hour and a half over the next few Mondays and Wednesdays? Why, the possibilities are endless! But I also often feel a little heavier, as I think back over the course of the semester and the things that maybe I didn’t explain as well as I could have, or the tangents I took so that time was lost for other items, or the readings I ran through too quickly. It should come as no surprise that instructors often complain (to each other) about their students – they didn’t do the reading, they did poorly on assignments, they don’t pay attention in class, class discussion didn’t go well, they’re immature, they can’t write a proper email, they wait until the last minute to write a paper, and so on. I am also guilty of this, and it is very easy  at the end of the term to think back on all the ways the students in one’s classes didn’t do what we wanted them to do in the context of the classroom, but I do try to stop myself at this time of the semester and not indulge that impulse too much. It can be self-defeating, as it doesn’t tell you much about what you did or can do – so instead I want to focus on what I have done and can do, and what my responsibilities are. Because I do work to remind myself about what kind of space the classroom is, and I see it as a space of responsibility and mutual respect.

Those can be very loaded words, responsibility and respect. Responsibility can imply the potential for individual blame, stripped of social or institutional context. It inherently locates power in some places and not others, as some are responsible for making decisions and bearing the cost of those decisions, though these groups are not always the same and the distribution of responsibility in this sense is not always fair or just. Responsibility in the classroom and in my workplace more generally also adheres to the contours of my faculty union’s collective agreement, in which the rights, duties, and responsibilities of faculty, librarian, and other academic staff are laid out in an article that has 65 sub-sections. As with any collective agreement, there is the tension around vagueness and specificity in how these rights, duties, and responsibilities are defined, but it also makes clear that rights (what we can do, and what can’t be done to us), duties (the things we must do as basic, necessary elements of our work), and responsibilities (what we should do as full participatory members of the university community as faculty or librarians) intersect and overlap, but are not the same. The collective agreement states, for example, that the “primary responsibilities of faculty members consist of teaching and research/scholarship/creative activity,” which in turn defines the outlines shapes the content of our workload, “which may vary from time to time and from member to member” and includes not just teaching and research or creative activities but also “service to the University and academic, professional and/or civic community.” As I have discussed with my colleagues and students many times, universities remain somewhat unique as a kind of workplace because in many ways, the academic employees have power to manage their work and the institution that is almost unthinkable in many other workplaces. There is of course an administrative level, and the concern with “administrative bloat” has driven debates over priorities, budgets, and governance on university campuses in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and many other countries. In my context, in a medium-sized comprehensive public university in Ontario, faculty have a lot of sway over how their work is structured, the content of that work, and even who gets to participate in that work. We run and populate the hiring committees to assess and select new faculty, we participate on committees to select deans and presidents in the management structure, we run the committees that determine the structure and goals of our academic programs, and we have wide latitude to determine how we deliver the courses we choose to teach (i.e., “academic freedom”). While all of these are under immense pressure because of concerns with efficiency, outcomes, and relevance that emanate from multiple sources, including politicians and bureaucrats, students and their parents, administrators and even some colleagues, it remains the case that in my immediate context, I and my faculty and librarian colleagues have a lot of control over our work and workplace. That in turn defines, for me, the focus of our responsibilities. It’s not just things we must do or which we have to make decisions about, but about the health of the institution, and creating conditions in and through that institution that help others (students, faculty, community members) thrive.

For me, that begins in the classroom. The classroom is, above all, a space of responsibility and of respect. Here I mean responsibility toward the students as a group and as individuals, and responsibility toward the material and the ideas behind it. I also mean respect in the sense that I assume my students are capable, and that they are real people, and I expect the same in return. My particular teaching style sometimes tends toward the spartan and the gruff – I use technology in a limited way in the classroom itself, and I often talk to my students like I would talk to anyone else. I try not to sugarcoat or condescend, I try to relate the material (which can be conceptually complex, empirically dense, and, as writing, incomprehensible) in ways that draw on real world examples and everyday language, and I try to get them to see themselves as much as possible in those processes, ideas, and examples. I expect in return that students will do the reading, pay attention in class to me and their peers, and try to learn and use the ideas and not just memorize things. Some days are great, and this leaves us all (or most of us) feeling like a community of scholars, at differing levels of understanding and experience, of course, but at least we’re all in it together and on the same page. Other days I feel like Don Quixote and they’re all looking at me like a bunch of windmills. But my point is, the classroom is a space of responsibility and respect, and of wild contingency. May things are possible, based on my decisions as a responsible instructor, and students’ decisions as individuals and as a whole coming to that space and bringing their interests, anxieties, and experiences. Every course and every day of class is a bit of an experiment.

I know, however, that many students don’t see or experience the classroom in this way, and that should be no surprise. They are not responsible for or to the space in the same way as me, and their sense of what it means to respect the material, the ideas, the space is different because they hold a different position relative to all of this than I do as the instructor. Even taking this from the most limited economic perspective, there is a fundamental difference in how we approach the classroom – I get paid to be there, they (or someone) must pay for them to access it. I try very hard to get students to consider this differential positioning at the start of every class in every semester by giving them a quotation from Antonio Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks, from his discussion of education, especially the prospects for the children of working and other non-elite classes and the structure and purpose of public education. Gramsci writes:

Many people have to be persuaded that studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship – involving muscles and nerves as well as intellect. It is a process of adaptation, a habit acquired with effort, tedium and even suffering. … [M]any people think that the difficulty of study conceals some ‘trick’ which handicaps them – that is, when they do not simply believe that they are stupid by nature.

I also give them one other quotation from Gramsci at the same time, though I change “men” in his original: “All [people] are intellectuals … but not all [people] have in society the function of intellectuals.” From this, I explain that in fact I do have in society the function of an ‘intellectual’ – I am credentialed, privileged, empowered, and so considered an expert with important things to say and to whom others should listen. I latched onto these passages as a way of starting my classes because in a graduate course, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, I had students read extensively from Gramsci’s prison notebooks, and it was that longer passage that jumped out at some of them. Gramsci discusses elsewhere, in discussing the emergence of the assembly line factory system in the US, particularly in Henry Ford’s auto plants, that “Hegemony here is born in the factory and requires for its exercise only a minute quantity of professional political and ideological intermediaries.” Gramsci means hegemony as a ablance of coercion and consent by which one class comes to dominate others and thereby shape the total social formation; for him writing in the 1920s and 1930s, this begins on the shop floor in the relation between capital and labor, but extends far beyond into the home, civil society, the schools, and the state. When I asked the students whether this was still the case, and if not, then where might hegemony begin today instead, several immediately offered the classroom as the space where hegemony is born and which most profoundly directs and shapes their lives and the society they expected to inherit. This hegemony for them is built on several facets: the persistent position of student as object and recipient rather than agent; being constantly ranked, categorized, graded, and sorted, and thus told what is and is not possible and where they stand relative to peers in a seemingly objective but mystifying way; having future economic prospects and social mobility determined and closed off by instructors and the grades that follow them through life; hearing constantly that higher education is necessary for a ‘good life’ but knowing that the possibilities for and of this life are already constrained by the necessity of earning money and accruing debt to even access the classroom where such education occurs. All of this blew me away, and made me realize many students see and experience the classroom as a space whee their abilities are degraded and agency taken from them, as a kind of portal through which they must pass but which offers them little in return. For many, the experience of the classroom is one in which they are presented with things to memorize which may be of little use outside that narrow space, the fear of being told one is stupid or not good enough, and the crushing burden of debt and financial obligation that may follow them for many years. It’s not a space of responsibility and respect in the least.

How to build that in conjunction with them is very difficult because I am not in control of the wider conditions of education, but only that space where we meet and where I have laid out a path through some material that I think is of value both conceptually and politically. At some point in every semester, I tell students what I think of the university as institution – not my university in specific, but contemporary universities more generally. I do not give them Neil Smith’s wonderful 2000 essay Who rules this sausage factory?, or a much longer quotation from Nicos Poulantzas that has shaped my thinking on this, but it builds from that. Poulantzas wrote in his 1975 book Classes in Contemporary Capitalism:

The training of mental labour consists, to a greater or lesser extent, in the inculcation of a series of rituals, secrets and symbolisms which are to a considerable extent those of a ‘general culture’, and whose main purpose is to distinguish it from manual labour. Once distinguished in this way, mental labour is to a great extent universally employable. … Thus to say today that a university degree in social science, literature, law, or a certain baccalaureat, etc, does not offer openings that correspond to the ‘qualification’ that it represents, is not strictly correct, in the sense that this degree, is not basically intended to guarantee this or that specialist knowledge, but rather to locate its bearer in the camp of mental labour in general and its specific hierarchy, i.e. to reproduce the mental/manual division of labour.

So what I tell students, based on this and on my many years’ experience in teaching, advising, and mentoring (and hearing really painfully heartfelt and sometimes strangely naive and misinformed ideas from students on what the university is and what it means to them or has done to them), is simply this. The university is two different things. It is an inhuman bureaucratic machine designed and operated to take your tuition dollars, give you a piece of paper, and turn you out as a kind of quantifiable product. The university is, however, also this classroom. And in this classroom space, we can make things happen that are more than the mere transmission of information to you from me in exchange for your tuition fees. We can, within the reason and the limits of my expertise, our collective respect and responsibility, and the wide latitude afforded us by the rules and regulations that establish this space, do whatever we want as a group of engaged and committed scholars. It can be a space of possibility and learning, not simply one where you get bilked, sorted, embarrassed, or burdened. The university is built on the classroom, and from there we can connect back to a bigger world in new ways. I think most students are on board with this, and for that reason, the assignments seem more fair, my assessments more humane, and the outcomes more their own.