Do You Like Your College Students? Really?

I entered a college classroom as an instructor for the first time in August, 1983. I was 28 years old, legally blind, with extremely long hair and an unkempt beard. I was in love with poetry and fresh off a Fulbright in Scandinavia where I translated Finnish poems into half-baked English and in the process, tried desperately to avoid slipping down the throat of my own increasingly consumerist and reactionary country. I was arriving in an undergraduate class in the first full blush of Reaganism. The students were unaccountably different from my college peers, and really almost a different species. I was Java Man and they were Mall Children and that’s just the way it was and I saw very quickly I’d have to get used to it. Somehow I understood they weren’t going to be like me and moreover it wasn’t my job to make them over in my image. I was lucky to have recognized this. Not every graduate student instructor of “Intro to Lit” got it and yet I did.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I liked them. They were mostly Iowa kids and some were from the Chicago suburbs. We were at the University of Iowa which in those days had very few foreign students and almost none from historically marginalized backgrounds—the campus was packed with third generation Czechs and Swedes. They were in college because their families wanted them there and they were lost both intellectually and spiritually as they wandered the big state U. They weren’t about to protest US involvement in Central America or organize against apartheid. What I liked about them—and this will sound rotten—was their earnestness mixed with a non-phlegmatic naïveté I’d never seen before.

Back east where I’d attended college there was invariably a ground swell of contrarianism among students—even if it was Sears Roebuck-ish, wearing sandals because everyone else did, or playing the stereo loudly, as if annoyance might be politics enough. If my classmates were each a kind of enfant naïf at least they imagined themselves to be worse and posing is, at the very least a step on life’s road and false steps are action. There were always students who’d climb on the roof of a dormitory and play flutes and guitars. Everyone hated Nixon and in my freshman year a popular graffito was: “If you voted for Nixon in ’72 you can’t shit here because your asshole’s in Washington.” If many of us were false, we were edgy, and I liked it.

Until I didn’t. Which is to say I was all for protesting the US incursion into Laos and Cambodia, wildly angry about Kent State—angry for the right reasons surely, and not ashamed to say so and not discomfited by my associations. I liked the Trotskyites and wave one feminists and took up fierce reading, everything from Frances Moore Lappe to Emerson, Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin. I felt good in my Army-Navy work pants and L.L. Bean moccasins. And yet…how to say it? What’s the opposite of earnestness? Insincerity and a lack of conviction pervaded the mannerisms of undergraduate life and if one had an ounce of irony one knew it. I remember a classmate who, hearing I liked to visit a local retirement community and lead sing-alongs with the residents said: “Schmaltz for the old bastards eh?” Anyone over thirty was to be distrusted. There were rules, many unspoken, but in the air nonetheless which is to say the late sixties and early seventies could be aggressively shallow. All generations are of course. The shallows weren’t new. But it gave me the fantods as Huck Finn would say. I didn’t like my introduction to privileged solipsism.

In that Iowa classroom I found myself among students so entirely a-political they seemed like people born without antibodies. I was reminded of a poem by Robert Bly in which he says: “The cry of those being eaten by America/and others, pale and soft, being stored for later eating…” (I need to look up the actual lines, but these are close…) The kids before me looked to be pre-digested. They were too sweet to live. And I caught myself then, for what in me was solipsistic? Had I grown up on a farm? Had I lived in small town Iowa? Did I know anything about living outside the Northeast? Of course the answer was no.

The question for me became one of intentionality. Perhaps some would become college professors—one hated to discount possibilities—but wasn’t this an opportunity to show them how lively, improbable, and compelling books can be? Wasn’t my job to be really, nothing more than a bookish impresario? And yes, of course, to help them be discerning when they wrote short essays about what they’d read. My job was to be interesting. And if that’s the case, well, you better like your audience. You’d best avoid thinking you’re better than they are.

This was not such an easy thing to do since my social circle was mostly made up of graduate students. Many of my acquaintances talked about the undergraduates they were teaching with a smooth contempt, which reminded me of “schmaltz for the old bastards”—a privileging of disdain built from nothing more than unfamiliarity and a generalized suspicion of goodness.

Books are good but only if you believe in readers. Fledgling academics parsed and limited who their student readers ought to be, how they should absorb literary consciousness, and worst of all, how they were permitted to write about it. My graduate school years coincided with the first big push to professionalize the study of English, the first big wave of literary theory (mostly French) and the first turn toward what scholars hoped would be a scientific approach toward language and culture. Our students were to be modified. Every pedagogue was a theorist. There was a lot of post-structural typhoid going around. Nowadays it’s typhoid squared and while many debate whether trigger warnings are proper in classrooms, I’ll argue the biggest threat to students is the unvarying adoption of a proleptic critical apparatus which makes the reading and discussion of literature largely unappealing to a broad range of students—students who are generalists, business majors, psych majors, math majors—who in the old days would read some Dreiser or Dickinson or Dos Passos, admire the books, and appreciate the opportunity to think about what they were reading—all without the pressure to be improved. And here I should say I’m an affectionado of Frederic Jameson; Julia Kristeva; Judith Butler—I believe reading our culture and knowing how language reflects, resists, or fails to resist dominant and unexamined sign systems is crucial to becoming a sharp and resilient thinker. I do. But I don’t think it should be your first pony.

If, as seems the case, the humanities are in trouble, it’s in no small part because of the febrile insistence from “the departments” that students be molded, inculcated directly, and forced to adopt a critical position “over” the reading of books for something akin to pleasure—such a term is nefarious within academe, tantamount to saying “apolitical” meaning the instructor is a quisling if she or he or they refuse to frame every class discussion around oppression. (Here is where I have to laugh: I’m all for oppression! I’m disabled for god’s sake! I’m reified and atomized into abjections galore and trust me I’m not shy when talking about it or teaching it.)

Nor do I think one has to abandon examinations of ableism, racism, homo-phobia, or a solid discussion of misogyny while teaching—one shouldn’t. But damn! Give students a few first ponies. English departments should be teaching Shakespeare for business students; poetry for scientists; Toni Morrison for pre-med students. Let the rich ethical and imaginative properties of great literature inspire students rather than, as we currently do, imagine the role of arts and sciences courses is to immediately create new baby professors.

Back to my Iowans. They liked Kurt Vonnegut; didn’t like Cervantes; enjoyed Jonathan Swift; mostly abjured Tristram Shandy. They understood injustice, but liked a little entertainment. And me? I threw away the required book on critical approaches to lit. I had them write book reports as though they were sharing their thoughts with their grandmothers.