“Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”; Or, Teachable Moments in Blog Comments

I’m up very late, thanks in part to an ill-timed cup of coffee, which means that I had my email inbox open this evening when I received notification of a concise but nevertheless incredibly shame-inflected comment on my one of my blog pages, which, in its attempt to assert itself within a particular hierarchy of knowledge acquisition, grated on my nerves. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a momentary reaction of an embarrassed cheek-flush, a symptom of my recognition that indeed, I had completely misused a theoretical concept without intending to. Mistakes happen, you see: even though I’ve been a graduate student for many years, I sometimes forget the very basics of my theoretical arsenal in my moments of haste, just as I can often forget rationales for grammatical logic, or the rules of verb conjugation. Shit happens, folks.

The joy of sitting with the discomfort of a mistake, and accepting its inherent humanity is what allows for that comment to be completely discharged of its intended affective power: shaming language, indeed, as all incidents of linguistic exchange, is as dependent of reception as it is on delivery. So, that being said, to my commenter: I’m sorry if you thought your signifiers had more affective power than they actually do.

While, as an adult, I may be able to understand such comments and language (i.e. “are you fucking kidding me?”) as particularly negatively inflected, it dawned on me that in my experience as a student, and in my current role as a teacher, that there are many individuals who do not know how to interpret these comments as anything but the  infliction of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

As a student, I feel grateful that I have rarely been on the receiving end of these types of comments about my lack of knowledge: this may, in part, have something to do with my relative luck in being able to retain information well, but it also has a great deal to do with having had a majority of teachers who offered kind direction and re-orienting when I found myself adrift in a sea of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

I have, however, witnessed and experienced first-hand, and have all-too-often heard second-hand through the tear-sniffled or enraged voices of my peers, some really horrendous tales of knowledge-related shame and abuse from teachers. It’s sad to say that this kind of behaviour hasn’t been limited to the grade school years, but seems to have intensified in the post-secondary sphere.

There’s a culture of intellectual elitism that is, I think, often mocked by those who are not in academia. It is almost laughably predictable how it operates: we do argue about theory, we do turn our noses up at those who misquote whichever theory or great critical oeuvre, and many of us do, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, talk shit about those who we claim are our respected peers or our treasured students. We do not often gently re-direct, offer helpful guidance or encourage careful re-reading. We (and I include myself in this we because I, too, am not impervious to this culture of intellectual shaming) give looks of disgust. We call undergraduate students out in the middle of large lectures or discussion groups for “clearly not having read the text” when they have already braved their own fear of failure to venture an answer. We tell graduate students that they obviously haven’t read Marx or Hegel or Spivak or Kant, as we rudely shove their papers back across our desks.

Many of these students leave, and sometimes, they never come back. They become an abrupt end to an otherwise-stellar attendance record, or, if they decide to stay, are transformed into a blank and mute face in the back of a room. They learn not to ask any more questions. They may drop a subject whose challenge they once loved, in favour of a field that offers less passion, but also reduces the possibility of having one’s self-esteem ripped to shreds. Most tragically, many of them learn to hate the process of learning.

Rather than condemn teachers outright, and paint them all with the same brush of “the heartless, dismissive, intellectual abuser,” what I want to suggest is that perhaps the impetus towards frustrated, angry, and shaming comments to students (whether deliberate or not), is simply because we ourselves have forgotten what it felt like to learn. We have forgotten what it was like to feel uneasy in our grasp of a text.

After you have read Marx or Chaucer or Faulkner for 20 or 30 years, or, unless you are unlike me and have an amazing grasp of everything, immediately and forever, you will have achieved a level of mastery that offers you the gift of relative amnesia about your own learning process. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s usually what inspires the confidence to really own the classroom, to be assertive, to let your students know that you are a trustworthy source of information. And yet, if you are not careful, if you do not harness that gift, it may explode in utterances such as “are you fucking kidding me?” and “you’re a stupid idiot,” or in the presence of a derisive tone, a sneering glance, a cold shoulder.

This doesn’t mean that we ought to sacrifice correcting our students for fear of treading on their tender little hearts. In a discipline such as English, which is often widely regarded by some as being “too open-ended,” it is important to acknowledge that while there may be room for interpretation in a poem, you can’t change the meaning of “post-structuralism” to really mean “structuralism.” Students absolutely do have a responsibility in their own learning process, and due effort is required and expected. It should also be noted that students will often react personally and quite emotionally to most criticism or correction: after all, most of us have a hard time disengaging our work from ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d never bother to spend time studying anything at all. My point, however, is that teachers, in their discipline and their criticism, have a choice whether or not to be firm, clear, and assertive, or total fucking assholes.

As I begin my new term of teaching a group of students who have probably not read or studied anything related to multicultural and Indigenous Canadian literature, this is a particularly valuable reminder to have had, a seemingly well-timed pedagogical refresher from the blogosphere (if not the universe).

While it is a fine balance to strike, I constantly strive to create a environment in which errors (my own and those of others) are not sites for the assertion of our own egos at the expense of others’, but in which teaching is truly both a practice that values its form, tone, and intent as much as it does its content.

And I’m not fucking kidding about that.

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5 comments

  1. Just plain language and a few expletives to GET THE MESSAGE across. Elitism raises its ugly head in all the disciplines. This Medusa of modern times – oh tiny woman, you outsmarted them all with your mirrored shield!

  2. Whatever happened to sharing that wondrous feeling of discovery and realization that came about through learning? Isn’t that what a true teacher ought to impart on a student, the passion, the perception of a subject being taught so that they can stand on the shoulders of those before them? And take it further.

  3. Paul, I agree 100%. I wonder how we get back to that….sometimes I think that with all these prescribed “learning outcomes” and documents that the government has as to how learning should function…that we’re losing sight of the true meaning of an education, and we’re losing students’ interests as a result. I always hope that what I can do in my tutorials is cultivate passion by demonstrating my own delight in a particular subject. I wonder what happens in a teacher’s process when they start to bring down the iron fist and make it about grading, or memorization, or regurgitation of information – is it a structural problem?

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