Theory is taught so as to make the student believe that he or she can become a Marxist, a feminist, an Afrocentrist, or a deconstructionist with about the same effort and commitment required in choosing items from a menu.
– Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
This isn’t my favorite Said but he does make a fine point here. I’m forced to recall this as I glance over the pile of papers egging me on. I am, as I can sometimes be, annoyed at myself for accepting the task of teaching political ideology to a bunch of undergrads who are only a few years my junior. It’s not so much their age that bothers me but that I can’t see how best to teach this without digressing into history [theirs–meaning everyone else’s and ours] and returning with enough time to actually still discuss what all these great minds meant outside of their time.
Next semester, I think I’m begging off (though surely not by pure choice alone) and looking forward to weekends spent reading and writing. More the reading than the writing, methinks. I’ve mastered the ability to jot things down even at the most inopportune of moments–between stations on the train, at the back of a motorcycle whilst riding sideways, while walking…some things just have to be set in writing lest I forget and lose the ideas completely.
But yes, returning to Said, I worry about the teacher’s role as authority and when it comes to things as valuable to me as ideas, it feels annoying to know that anything said in class could hold greater weight because I’m the one standing on the podium. In another, often misquoted and abused work, Said says:
There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.
(Taken from the Introduction of his seminal work, Orientalism)
He knows and I know but the question is, does the student know? I worry that maybe I inflict ideas upon them and as I am careful and quick to debunk even my own analysis just to show that there’s a plurality of beliefs, the reality is still that: authority figures canons of taste and value.
I could also be over-thinking and for all I know, I’ve debunked myself so many times they might not care what to believe anymore in the end. In any case, ideas are complex things–which makes teaching it difficult but not without a great sense of satisfaction especially when students leave the room with more questions than answers. This has happened once or twice in recent history and often, what betrays the thinking, inquisitive pupil is his stillness even as the time suddenly runs out. Class is dismissed and he’s forced by habit to stand and walk out the door but he ambles on in another direction, straying from his usual path. It’s wonderful to watch. Many times I’ve also had to write something nonsensical on the board in order to disguise the mist forming in my eyes as an allergy to chalk dust.
When you ask me a question, sometimes, I feel as if you get it way better than I could ever teach it or learn it, even.
So, what has this been? For the most part, it’s just another digression. In the real world I am worrying about a meeting with the man from Memorare Manila. We’re discussing an event that happened more than sixty years ago and it’s incumbent upon us to spark remembrance and keep the embers burning. There’s anxiety there too and a sense that I might not know enough about history to best be in the position I’m in. As you’ve probably also guessed, there’s school and the reality of a semester coming to a close–so much parting involved and always when we’ve managed to get to know our students better.
This week is erratic and all I can really think about is Said carefully reminding me to not let the entire exercise of the intellect go to waste. “Think!” I imagine him saying.
“Trust nothing but the veracity of your own ideas after your mind’s had its way with them.” [This isn’t Said anymore. Just me wanting to carve these words onto a rubber stamp for the next time papers come piling in.]
The footnote: Actually, the point I was going to get at since class ended with Marx was that the nature of the roles themselves [teacher-student] need some revamping, recreation–perhaps even re-enacting?