April 20, 2016

We Do Not Debate Civilly

We Do Not Debate Civilly

You should really enable them. I'd bet you'd get a lot on your "RESPONSE TO RON SRIGLEY." I actually learned something from reading his well written and reasoned article. Your much shorter diatribe told me nothing, other than that you're the petulant one, not him. He wasn't shaming students. He was sympathizing with them no longer knowing what education is about, thanks to masses of administrators and "innovators." Perhaps you could get your point across better by a video clip or something else digital.~ A message from a reader titled "Comments"

There are two sides to every story. Not original, I know, but sometimes originality needs to be sacrificed for reliability. As imperfect as an overused colloquialism can be, sometimes what we need is clarity, a linguistic touchstone reassuring us that, yes, yes, there is truth.
Why bring that up after such an odd epigraph? Hang in there, and I'll get to that. Patience is a... Well, you know.

So, again: there are two sides to every story. The comment above that I received as an e-mail message from its author demonstrates that well. My blog post, "Collegiality as Pedagogy", to which the commenter refers definitely sheds light on only one side of a story. In fact, in writing it I assumed I was preaching to the choir. I didn't expect a response from Mr. Srigley (though I did hope for one), nor did I think any of "the masses of educators to whom he gives voice" would enjoy my post, much less have any sort of conversion experience from reading it. In fact, I thought they would probably read only about half of my "diatribe." I have for a very long time now lived and worked on the other side of the tracks from those whose pedagogical values align with my commenter's and Mr. Srigley's. Generally, I don't listen to them, and they don't listen to me. But now and then, there's a volley.

I did not intend Mr. Srigley any harm. I've recently discovered that Mr. Srigley was suspended (a few even conjecture the suspension was related to the article to which my own responded), which is not harm I would wish on anyone. The truth is that the web is a platform for open debate. Mine was not the only response to his piece. Guaranteed, there were many others, from both sides of the track. This is part of the nature not only of the digital — ever public, ever shifting, with untold numbers in the audience — this is also part of academia. We do not debate civilly. Instead, we write diatribes, and call each other petulant. We make suggestions about how someone might get their point across better. And we write posts like this one in response to comments that landed in our inboxes right at dinner time.

The digital has made everything that much more human. Where print publication hides the author away behind binding and paper and long publication cycles, the digital is immediate. When Mr. Frank Bond sends a message from my site, and it arrives as I'm sitting down to dinner, it's far more intimate a communication than the Comments he suggests I allow here. He can interrupt me, disrupt my conversation, throw off my whole evening.

Academics are not among the most responsible of adults. There's a shine, though, to academic labor that's polished by the institution's reputational economy. Once we have achieved a certain status—a Ph.D., tenure, full professorship, a belly-full of peer-reviewed publications—then no matter what we say or how we say it, our words are afforded credibility, even dignity.

Take Mr. Slavoj Žižek, whose Wikipedia page notes that

"He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London."

Those are his apples. And a lot of people like those apples. Even though most people have no idea what Mr. Žižek does each day, how he earns all that credibility. Mr. Žižek has been quoted as saying things like:

When I really love someone, I can only show it by making aggressive and bad-taste remarks.

Without the communist oppression, I am absolutely sure I would now be a local stupid professor of philosophy in Ljubljana.

Humanity? Yes, it's OK – some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99% are boring idiots.

And he's said some other, meaner stuff too. But the point here is not to drag Mr. Žižek into the same camp as Mr. Srigley and Mr. Bond; rather, I want to point out that he can say pretty much anything he wants about students, education, or humanity and not lose any of his credibility, not be put on suspension. He has won too much reputational capital to experience any but theoretical repercussions for what he says.

(I should point out one thing: the preponderance of "Mr.'s" in my examples here. For a woman, much less a woman of color, to behave the way Mr. Žižek behaves would discredit her utterly. In fact, his brand of ugliness boosts his reputation, in much the same way that Mr. Srigley's brashness in the L.A. Times Book Review has gained him both adamant supporters and detractors. And what if I was a woman? Would I get away with the tone I'm striking here?)

Mr. Žižek is not among the most responsible adults. He has made discourse his playground. And those who are yet climbing the ladder (or building their own ladder to climb) of academic reputation—students, adjuncts, contingent teachers, junior faculty—not only have to abide him, they may one day have to reference him in their own work in order to be considered credible themselves.

Which brings me back to Mr. Bond's e-mailed comment. He writes that Mr. Srigley "wasn't shaming students. He was sympathizing with them no longer knowing what education is about..." This is the wound of education's Narcissism: that Professors—and not administrators, not "innovators", but most importantly not students—are the guardians of education. In this scenario, students need to be protected from administrators and innovators and themselves by those guardians of learning. And while under Mr. Bond's and Mr. Srigley's guardianship, students must be okay with being sympathized with for their lack of understanding. In much the same way as the academy would have us respect Mr. Žižek despite his clear lack of regard for the rest of us.

But before I go off the rails and start firing volleys across the track again, let me go back to where this started: with a reliable, imperfect idiom. There are two sides to every story. There is no reason in wishing Mr. Srigley bad fortune or suspension. Rather, I wish him deep conversation. I invited him to speak back to me in my previous post. I wished to start a dialogue. Because, you see, there are moments I agree with him, or some of what he says. There is reassurance in the reliability of what we hope education has always been, even if the role of Professor and Student are nostalgically colloquial. I have chosen to move away from that, to believe that our nostalgia hurts us more than helps us; but the truth is I will never understand learning until I understand Mr. Srigley and the teachers he speaks for. And I know he will never understand education until he discovers where I and my cohort fit within it.


As a final related remark, I want to address the lack of comments on this blog. If, as I say, I want to create dialogue, comments here would be a pretty quick way to do that. However, I have learned that I am slow on the web, and that I prefer to write posts back and forth in a way that is both thoughtful and distributed. This way, the conversation is spread around, and not localized. Because this is—this must be—a dialogue of many.