Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Good piece about liberal professors and conservative students. It took me back to my college days, a scant two years ago. “John” of Bérubé’s class could have any number of standard-issue white blowhards in a few of my own classes. Luckily there weren’t many. I almost wish I had encountered more of them. I was an obnoxious hand-raiser in my own right. “John” would not have lasted long had I been in class with him.

But back to the Bérubé piece.

“John’s” problem isn’t so much that he’s a conservative surrounded by liberals than it is that he is a jerk surrounded by people too polite to call him a jerk to his face.
Actually, some students agreed with John about one thing or another but were simply annoyed that he was taking up so much class time. They began sending me e-mail messages and speaking to me privately about how they did not want John's remarks to set the parameters for class discussion. One student complained that she was wasting time trying to think of things that John wouldn't reply to; another said that he found anti-porn feminism obnoxious, just as John did, but couldn't stand it when people dismissed feminism so sweepingly as to render suspect other people's more careful critiques (his own, for example). If I asked John to cool it, then, he would undoubtedly feel silenced, and I would be in the position of validating what was perhaps, for him, a stifling liberal hegemony over classroom speech; if I failed to restrain him, I would in effect be allowing him to dominate the class, thereby silencing the other students who'd taken the time to speak to me about the problem.

It reads like a technique straight from the Bill O’Reilly Guide to debate. “John” wasn’t unpopular because he was conservative, he was unpopular because he was an ass. Moreover, being conservative didn’t make him an ass (huh? you say). Sounds to me like the students resented the fact that “John” not Bérubé was dictating how they were learning.

Learning seems to have a ratings system much like movies. In elementary school you get the G-rated version of things. Columbus actually did discover America and was good and kind to the savage Indians. In High School things get a little racier. Well actually Columbus only discovered the West Indies and the Vikings may have gotten here first. By college you should be ready for the ugly truths of colonialism, imperialism, genocide. Triple X stuff. “John” clearly has issues with this and compounds his immature approach to higher learning by throwing a tantrum when the story doesn’t go his way.
…by the time we got in December to Colson Whitehead's 1999 The Intuitionist, a whimsical allegory about racial uplift and the history of elevator inspection, John was complaining that there were no good white characters in the novel. By that point, even I had had enough, and I told him, via e-mail, that his complaint was not only unwarranted on its face but thoroughly beside the point: In this class, I said, we are not in the business of pursuing reductive identity-politics enterprises like looking for "positive images" in literature, regardless of what group images we might be talking about.

Sho ‘nuff. Seriously though. I didn’t have a problem with College Conservatives going after more liberal student groups. That’s part of campus culture, the protests, the counter protests and the rest of us worming through the crowd because we don’t want to be late for class. But trying to dictate department curriculum… ick. I wonder what “John’s” syllabus would look like. Any takers?

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