Widening gyre

This whole month, both of my literature classes have turned into discussions of what defines the human and what we assume that humans deserve by being human. We’re reading a lot of 18th-century stuff on colonialism and slavery, so it keeps coming up, even if I fear that the conversation is getting wide of strictly literary analysis.

If someone is defined as a human, what is the base level of what we believe they should have access to? Then, what do we hope for a human child?

Inevitably, the class comes up with an extremely liberal list. These students are probably the least politically and historically knowledgeable population I’ve ever met in my life*, so it always seems surprising that they are so generous with the concept of “humanity.” A human, they say, deserves dignity, education, freedom of speech and religion, safety, access to paying work, nutrition, health care, class mobility—the list goes on and on. Their collective dreams for the human child are boundless. Every child should dream without limits. There is nothing this human child cannot do.

Then we start discussing how our imagined rights and dreams for the human change when we start describing the human. What if the human is poor? Mentally ill? Physically disabled? Immigrant? Muslim? Gay? Black? Female? Do we dream as big for the imagined human who we describe as not bourgeois, normally able, English-speaking, Christian, straight, white, and male? I ask it mostly as food for thought; I don’t really want to have an actual discussion about why it turns out, frex, that some students are pretty sure that Muslims aren’t human or something.**

A few students start asking how we’re supposed to cope with the daily humiliation of how little other people imagine for us based on something they perceive makes us less worthy of the title of humanity. I say I don’t know, because it is really stupid and awful, but, in my own experience of being a woman who has been a teacher to several hundred students, things have either gotten better in the past ten years, or else I have stopped giving a shit. When I first started teaching, I was surrounded by people trying to tell me that, as a woman in the classroom, I have got to wear a skirt because it is impossible for a woman to have authority without a skirt. Others said I have got to wear pants because pants are what they associate with authority and dignity. Some said I have to learn to be more motherly because that’s the only kind of female leadership they understand, and others said I have to learn to be a total bitch so they know who’s boss.

I’m telling my students this because it’s a really really minor and easy-to-understand example of how twisted and silly perceived prejudice can make you feel. Some students are chiming in to talk about how we tie ourselves up in knots trying not to be taken for the “wrong kind” of gay, female, Muslim, African-American, Latina, and so forth, which is sort of what the book we’re reading is about. When we do that, it often presents as a betrayal of the oppressed group. When I say “I’m not that kind of woman,” I’m saying there is a kind of woman it’s reasonable to hate and disrespect as a category. So we’re all on the same page, faster than I’ve ever seen before. I’m like yay.

Then 19-year-old White Guy pipes up to say that he really does want to argue that the way a woman looks in front of the classroom—how she dresses, and whether her body is pleasing to him—is really important, and is a crucial part of his college experience. If he is going to be expected to look at a female for 75 minutes twice a week, she really needs to “take care of herself, you know, go the gym and do her hair and stuff.” If she doesn’t, she really is a bad teacher. “Listen, I don’t make the rules here,” he says. “This is just how things are in this world. Someday you’re going to learn that.”

Because I am a saint from outer space, I did not reply that I have to stare at his ugly fucking face for 75 minutes also and would be happy to grade his intelligence and performance based on how I feel about that. No, I did not. Instead, I said, “Ugh, I guess things haven’t gotten better in the past ten years after all. The difference is I just can’t give a shit anymore.”

“Good for you,” he responded. Thanks, man. It’s so great to have your approval.

* – “You keep saying the word ‘colonialism’ like it’s something we’re supposed to have heard of.”

** – Weird discovery: classes full of English majors are sure to have a student who tries to explain that some population is subhuman in terms of rights. I have never heard any such assertion from a non-English major.

15 responses to “Widening gyre”

  1. EssToTheGee says:

    I kept waiting for the part of the story where you accidentally push this dude in front of a bus.

    “These students are probably the least politically and historically knowledgeable population I’ve ever met in my life.” I’m teaching a class this semester that, given their collective posture and attitude, led me to believe that they were super knowledgable, and I feared that everything I said was all like “DUUUUHHHHH, tell us something we don’t already know!”

    But over time, I’ve come to realize that they are actually just being defensive, given their lack of any wide breadth of understanding. So with each class I feel like the smart-student posture is melting away, and only the “DUUUUHHHHH” part is left. It’s a really a fascinating thing to watch.

    (I’m new to this whole teaching thing, so don’t hate on me if I’m stating the obvious, but) I think that there’s a pretty clear correlation between the sureness with which students behave and their lack of knowledge — Maybe this just applies to everyone.

  2. EssToTheGee says:

    Loved the post, BTW.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    A few students start asking how we’re supposed to cope with the daily humiliation of how little other people imagine for us based on something they perceive makes us less worthy of the title of humanity.

    This is maybe middle-of-the-list as far as daily humiliations go.

  4. AWB says:

    Ess, I wonder if part of it is that they just have no idea how much they don’t know. In high school, the point was to learn all the things offered and take a test showing you learned all the things. So you think you know what there is to know. And then suddenly someone in college starts referring to duh colonialism, genocide, slavery, and all these other things that weren’t on the test. I think my students are starting to feel betrayed by high school.

    I don’t think high school can teach everything, of course, but one thing I really loved about my HS teachers was how often they said, “This is actually way more complex; someday you’ll learn a lot more than I can teach you about it.” I knew that I didn’t know everything. I have a very clear memory of my senior English teacher teaching all the things on the syllabus (Beowulf, Dante, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Achebe) and then offering us a bunch of Donald Barthelme stories and William Blake poems. There is a whole world outside the curriculum. Even if the curriculum is good, there is still so much we can’t talk about yet.

  5. LHD says:

    In the department of 19-year-olds having little knowledge and even less curiosity, I read a dismaying Facebook post from my niece today. She’s taking part in a 30 questions in 30 days meme, and today’s question was, “If you could trade places with anyone for 24 hours, who would you choose?”

    Wow – how about an astronaut going up in the space shuttle? Or a rock star doing a stadium concert? Or a fisherman in a tiny Greek village? Or yak herder in Mongolia? Or the Queen of England? She chose none of these. She chose… her mom. With whom she still lives. Whaaaaat?

    Excellent post, per usual, AWB. I especially enjoyed “Because I am a saint from outer space…” Now, that’s someone I’d trade places with for 24 hours.

  6. swells says:

    AWB, I love how generous your assumptions are about students–that it’s got more to do with how they’ve been acculturated to understand and assume the breadth of their knowledge–and I think you’re exactly right. In my current literature class, I’ve noticed a trend in which whenever I mention a word that I’m assuming they know that they really don’t (“metanarrative” and “the romantic sublime” come to mind), the one person in the class who has established himself as the most well read and willing to engage in whatever text we’re reading is always the only one to raise his hand looking bewildered and proclaim “I don’t know what that is.” Even when I ask if they know the term I mean, just to check, he’s the only one who asks for a definition. I suspect this is WHY he’s the most well read and able to engage in the things we do discuss; I also suspect that, like SG’s students, many of them are too afraid of being exposed as not knowing what they think they already should know. Which is too bad because, of course, that’s (presumably) why they’re coming to a college class at all–to find out more stuff and, even more, learn to ask and learn about what they don’t know.

    The very context of college survey courses may be somewhat responsible for their beliefs, at least the ones who aren’t really thinking very critically, that they should already “know” a subject like “The 19th-Century British Novel” or whatever their survey title was, as if the teacher can provide anything but a surface-skimming selection of greatest hits of ANY subject in the brief time one term allows. I try to keep reminding them that it’s only dipping a toe into the pool, but I’m sure it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that even though you took the class in it, you’ve still only been exposed to a fraction of it.

    And then, one might ask, isn’t there something really exciting about that knowledge? I hope for some of them that there is.

  7. swells says:

    p.s. forgot to mention how hilarious (and maddening) your description of the White Guy is. “Someday you’re going to learn that”!! Ow.

  8. swells says:

    Whoops, to clarify my comment in my second paragraph of #6: I meant their assumption that they should “know” the subject once they’ve taken a course on it, not automatically going in.

  9. Josh K-sky says:

    Is it hopelessly naive to think that LHD’s niece isn’t incurious but kind of radically curious? It seems remarkably perceptive and empathetic to think that someone that close to you could have a radical-enough difference in the way they perceive the world that it would be valuable to trade places with them. But maybe she’s just answering the question “my hero is…” and she needs to get out more.

  10. AWB says:

    Also, just to be clear: despite all appearances here, I don’t hate White Guy. I get frustrated with him, in part because I clearly remember how long it took me to develop past a totally privileged-man attitude toward the world. I was raised to think of myself as a swaggering, powerful boy, because that was the only kind of power I knew how to see. I was never lookist in this way; I didn’t think anyone had the duty to be sexually attractive to me. But I did have the naive assumption that taking the oppression of the world for granted and getting over it was the only way to achieve anything. I thought there wasn’t any value in understanding one’s own marginalization or potential for marginalization.

    What I tend to see in the privileged-man attitude now is fear. What happens if this world I’ve devoted my whole life to gaming, through any advantage I can find, turns on me? What if it changes and everything I see as my own privilege gets destroyed somehow? It wasn’t until I was embarrassingly old before I began to see that the fear is perfectly justified by experience, because we’re all weird, and we’re all in some ways victims of potential prejudice, and that the only way to respond to that system is to identify with the oppressed, rather than with the oppressors.

    Does that make sense?

  11. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Her entire perspective on the responsibilities of adulthood and the unacknowledged pressures of childhood could be shifted! Did we learn nothing from Freaky Friday?!

    (Oh good. Hail outside. If anyone needs me I’m moving to the Yucatan peninsula.)

  12. LHD says:

    9: Definitely a “hero” scenario rather than a radical exploration of anything. Lots of backstory that i’m not relaying here, but there’s no doubt in my mind that her answer is less perceptive and empathetic than it is evidence of a childlike adoration of her mom. And yes, although she’s an incredibly sweet and smart young woman, she really does need to get out more.

  13. J-Woman says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I don’t really understand what is to be gained by not putting White Guy in his place, or at least pointing out to him that perhaps he should try looking at things from a different perspective, say as a slave rather than a colonialist. Or maybe you already have, and he’s just not able to see around that corner? How does not saying anything make you a Saint from Outer Space? Is it that you’re teaching an English class, not a Women’s Studies class, and this class isn’t the place for that kind of digression? But it seems that it already digressed to the point that there are major issues that came up.

  14. LHD says:

    11: “Did we learn nothing from Freaky Friday?!”

    I don’t know about you, but I learned that I wanted to be bestest friends with Jodie Foster. At least, I thought that’s what those feelings were.

  15. A White Bear says:

    13: I addressed the issue at length, but I was just proud of myself for not being openly and unproductively nasty.