My teacher is weird. She speaks with an accent. She sometimes stammers and gropes for words. She demands that we be creative. She mentions "revision" at least once per class. She smiles when cell phones ring and lets us out to have a talk. She clinks her silver bracelet on her desk and tells us we're adults. She sits in her chair and asks us to be rebels. My teacher is an outsider. My teacher is an alien.
Perhaps some of these thoughts really do cross my students' minds.
Anxiously awaiting their English composition class, at first they mistake me
for a classmate. I am dressed like them, restless like them, and scared like
them. When I introduce the course as a freelance creative endeavor and in a
flash of courage bid them be rebels, they look at me like I'm from another
planet. "Rebels?!" their confused/amused looks seem to be asking. Some stealthily
snicker, perhaps remembering a drinking bout or a puff of grass from the night
before, while others gape innocently, genuinely shocked -- but nobody seems
to be taking me seriously. And how could they? On every corner they are bombarded
with somewhat paranoid restrictions and censorship, which reduce them to a
position similar to my own status of a non-immigrant alien: they are underdogs.
Their lawful rights are limited, they are not yet considered full-fledged members
of the society, and their actions are under a magnifying glass. With me the
problem is being foreign; with them it is hormonal imbalance and/or race.
So I qualify: "Be rebels in your writing," hoping they will unleash their imaginations and adopt writing as a desirable and effective form of personal expression. I say, "Choose a topic YOU want to write about," thinking that this at least is a freedom amid academic prescriptions, but ideas do not flow; their eyes beg for suggestions, or they pick an issue discussed a million times before: abortion, the death penalty, gun-control, cloning. I bring them Japanese hip-hop and suggest they imagine what the song may be about or what a video may look like, but all I get are trite accounts of lovesickness and unpersuasively romanticized manifestations of sexual desire that they hear every day in mushy jams on the radio. I bring them instrumental music and photographs and ask them to search their emotions, meditate and create, but they are baffled by the lack of words and of someone telling them what to think and do. Their minds seem to be packed with stop signs.
I decide to take it slow and stay with the usual: an essay about a memorable past experience. Several students tell good stories, but hardly anyone probes the depths of issues they raise. One of them writes about the working conditions at Target and his disillusionment with civility of the human race; he uses the opportunity to shyly criticize the materialist consumer culture. "Finally!" I jump with joy. "No surprise," I think to myself, stealing glances at his outfit. He has seven piercings in every pierceable portion of his face, and wears a black Marilyn Manson T-shirt, tight black jeans and studded Doc Martens boots. He never takes off his black baseball cap and peers at me indifferently through his rather thick round glasses. His look dares me to get through to him; thinking back to my own Goth craze in high school, I am almost positive I never will, but I'm happy to have him in my class.
I look forward to his subsequent essays, but my enthusiasm ends in disappointment. He too appears to have caved in to the pressure of academic propriety and loses the flare, saying only what he expects is suitable and not budging one bit from the established conventions of academic writing. I feel better thinking he did it to make a point: his piercings have caused him unwanted attention and embarrassment, he says in a journal entry, and perhaps he symbolically took them off by temporarily refusing to be original in his writing. His true and reassuring act of resistance comes in the letter of introduction to his final portfolio: it completely ignores the prescribed form and is only four sentences long. The evaluation committee wants to fail him (as if the letter is the most important part of the portfolio), but I firmly stand by my recommendation that he passes, and so he does. I smile to myself: "Punk's not dead."
In the meantime, in my more advanced remedial class a tall and
wiry Irish-American 19-year-old from an upper-middle-class family sits equally
regularly and indifferently, emitting signals of the sense of misplacement
and absolute boredom. His occasional participation in class discussions reveals
him as highly intelligent but utterly unappreciative of academe. In response
to a prompt asking him to appraise his type of intelligence, he says, "In high
school I often knew more than my teachers and I never felt motivated." I'm
not sure how much teenage hubris or machismo there is in the statement, but
the student seems to need more than regulations to express himself. I encourage
him to articulate his discontent in writing, at the same time asking myself: "How
do you write when someone tells you, 'Say whatever you want, but say it in
a certain academically acceptable way'?"
His third and last essay is about censorship of books, music, and TV shows, and about a pro-alcohol paper he wrote in high school that almost cost him his diploma because his teacher didn't like his opinion. He strictly opposes all types of suppression and demands a plausible answer to the following: "Where is my freedom of choice if somebody is telling me what I can and cannot say, hear, or see?" I am ecstatic to see his teenage revolt still very much alive and in my final evaluation of his class performance I encourage him to retain the perspective of doubt and displeasure while aware that he had to compromise his principles in order to make his portfolio formally acceptable to the evaluation committee.
As I have discovered through my five-semester teaching experience,
it is not a coincidence that both of the students I mention are white male
Americans, as were most of the others who consistently showed a potential for
fruitful and possibly unsettling critical analysis of their surroundings. Female
and minority students, on the other hand, seem to be much more prone to obeisance.
Is it because many women and minorities are still traditionally taught to be
submissive, moderate, and cautious in their interaction with authority figures?
Out of 27 female students in three of my classes last semester, there were
eight who exhibited the intellectual curiosity necessary to judiciously and
persuasively discuss controversial issues, such as their position on homosexual
marriage or Latinas in American society. How likely is it, then, that in only
three and a half months their English teacher will manage to encourage the
other 19, plus many equally restrained male minority students, to aspire, inquire
and express themselves freely?
And then it hits me: Perhaps I am the one being unreasonable. Students do not really want me to interfere with their order; I am here to teach them rules and they are here to learn them. For most of them, academia is not synonymous with "fun" or "freedom"; rather, it looms large as just another authority that will put them in their place. I am simply a nuisance in their path to the ultimate goal of realizing the philistine vision of the American dream. Therefore, I am being disciplined as successfully as my students. There are specific regulations as to how and why writing should be taught; pragmatism overrules novelty and academic precepts often turn instructors' enthusiastic and experimental syllabi into dull lists of requisites. So I give in. I do not tell my students "Be rebels" anymore. I tell them, "Be creative…but do not break the rules," even as I feel that limitations imposed by formidable institutions are often the reason why they come to class with thoughts fettered and hands bound.
Posted June 23, 2005.
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©2005 by Lea Puljcan Juric.