Monday, July 28, 2014

Hierarchy and Force in Teaching: Raising the White Flag

This post is an attempt to express my conflict over the hierarchal nature of teaching within the context of my own experience and to offer some theoretical context for it. I do not pretend to have a solution. It is likely that the principle of hierarchy is built into the relationship between teachers and students and we are left having to pay the price for that fact.

Human interactions can be divided into coercive and non-coercive ones. When we get our way with other people, it can be because we put a gun to someone’s head, broke their legs or otherwise threatened them with something truly unpleasant. Alternatively, people might choose to do what we want out of their own free will, because they like us or, perhaps, because we paid them. It is easy to understand the evil of coercion when on the receiving end of it. We have all sorts of words for other people wielding power over us, tyranny, injustice and oppression. Things are a little trickier when we are the ones a position of power. Our actions are always for the “benefit” of those in our charge or even for “humanity” at large. That our charges may not appreciate our “humanitarianism” simply demonstrates that they are “ungrateful” and “deserve” to be in a subordinated to our will. Even otherwise decent people are tempted to use force for no other reason than its mere simplicity. Picture any narrow problem involving other people and I challenge you to think of a more direct solution than to be in a position of power to threaten those who get in the way with physical harm for their continued defiance. The problem with such a view can only be perceived when taking a larger view that asks not how we can solve specific problems, but how to avoid oppositional relationships and create situations in which people have a reason to cooperate. Coercion will eliminate human obstacles, but it fails to turn those same obstacles into ladders that will allow us to rise.
This argument against hierarchical systems of power is most obviously relevant to politics. I am here interested in the question of teaching. If defenders of authoritarianism have, in the past, argued that a specific group was “like children” and, needed to be ruled over, teaching involves literal children, who presumably need to be kept in the care of adults. What I am attempting to grapple with here is not even the issue of corporal punishment. Modern education has eliminated corporal punishment, and I think that is a good thing. Regardless of whether there are cases where students truly deserve what is coming to them, such punishment corrupts the relationship between teachers and students by turning it into an oppositional one. This inhibits the larger project of transmitting values and methods of thinking that should be at the heart of education and are necessary for progress. That being said, even if teachers lost their paddles and yardsticks, teaching remains a fundamentally authoritarian process built around coercion. We still hold over students the threat of failing grades and by extension the long term likelihood of being denied a job and a ticket to prosperity. This power is strengthened by a presumed moral authority. Students know that they cannot touch us, but the school administration and even their own parents will support us if we act against them. Not only do we have the right to punish, but we will be affirmed as right in doing so. This authoritarian structure even manifests itself in the act of teaching in the form of the lecture. Such a system presumes the existence of a teacher in possession of the “right” answers and the masses of students in need of enlightenment. The teacher then stands in front and “transmits” knowledge from his mind to those of the students through speech or possibly visual aids. The logical corollary is that the teacher is in a position to stand in judgment, presumably through exams, as to how successful students have “absorbed” this knowledge and, therefore, has a moral right to reward or punish students with grades.      

A few years ago, I spent a year teaching high school history. I was fortunate in having a talented class. I remain in contact with several students, who continue to seek me out for whatever life or academic wisdom I can offer them. That being said, as with all human endeavors, there were regular conflicts of interest. At its most basic level, there was a conflict in the sense that students often wished to do other things than sit in class and listen to me. I am not a tyrannical person, greedy for power. On the contrary, I am an idealist, who believes in the cause of teaching. Furthermore, I felt pressure to justify the paycheck I received as a teacher by making sure I spent every moment doing things that an outside observer would recognize as productive teaching. Ironically, if I had cared less, I might have performed better. For example, I saw it as my responsibility to keep students in the classroom and refused to let more than one student out at a time to use the restroom. I even refused to let students leave, who I came to believe were abusing their privilege. I also objected to students doing work from other classes during my class. As I am sure readers would agree, when narrowly considered, everything that I did was in my rights. My mistake was that I perpetuated a mindset for myself and my students of confrontation in which it was me versus them. Perhaps the biggest sign of this was that it frustrated me when students did not do as I wished, which manifested in my doing a fair amount of yelling. Again, it is not a matter of whether I was in the right in specific cases. The very fact that I could get frustrated should have been a sign that I was not receiving something that I believed I had a right to and should have begged the question of whether these students owed me anything. For this reason, I owe all my students, particularly the “problematic” ones, an apology. That I was the true student, learning how to teach, may perhaps serve as a reason to treat my very real failings as a teacher with some charity.

This past year, I started tutoring a group of kids from a large family, ranging in age from toddler to teen, on a weekly basis. Needless to say, I do not work with all of these kids at the same time or on the same things. Theoretically, the first hour should consist of working with the younger set on their reading. The littlest ones should be able to pick out words in the story as I read to them. The bigger ones should be able to do some of the reading. The second hour should consist of me hosting a discussion about history and politics with the older set. Lessons rarely work out so neatly. Not all of the kids are interested in doing anything with me at a given time, and they are not always interested in the same things as another kid. In practice, I find myself jumping from kid to kid and vastly different topics with a fair amount of horseplay mixed in. My goal is not to control the situation, but to engage a few kids at a time for a brief period before moving on to something else.  

Being a tutor, as opposed to a teacher, means no yearly contract. Thus, the parents can get rid of me anytime they choose. This reality increases the pressure to perform “teaching” actions. I have this dread that the parents will walk in and see one kid playing a game on my kindle, another reading a book while I have a light saber duel with a third and decide that it would be cheaper to simply hire a babysitter, disregarding the fact that I was explaining the importance of conflict in narrative. Oddly enough, what makes tutoring workable for me is that, unlike teaching, there is no temptation to believe that I have any authority. Recognizing and accepting this fact means I am less likely to attempt to exercise this non-existent authority. Lack of job security is scary and certainly makes me anxious to hear that the family likes what I am doing, but it is not something I can control. So I have no choice but to focus on what I can control, and that is being the best resource for the kids that I can in whatever form they choose to take it. Hopefully, they have learned at least half as much as I have learned from them.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Tribute to Walter Dean Myers From My Seven Year Old Self


Last week, novelist Walter Dean Myers passed away. He has rightly been hailed as a literary icon for his ability to capture the experience of African-American males in books such as Monster and Fallen Angels. My purpose here is not to discuss Myers’ great virtues, but his humble ones. I will leave it those who are actually African-American to speak about how Myers influenced them as African-American readers. As I am male, though, I will address myself to how Myers has influenced me as a male reader. His young-adult book The Legend of Tarik was one of the first novels I ever read and certainly the first that I felt really strongly about. That the book drew my seven-year-old self across the then intimidating length of nearly 200 pages and brought me back to read it again repeatedly should be sufficient praise. In third grade, we were able to earn the privilege of reading to the class. I used the opportunity to subject the class to my reading from Tarik. I confess that I owe an apology to my classmates, not for my choice in books, but for my zeal in pressing it upon them.

I have no intention of praising Tarik as great literature let alone to claim it as grounds for declaring Myers a great author. The fact that Myers has become a part of the canon of American literature, with his books commonly used in school curricula, was not something I was aware of until I was an adult. No teacher made me read Tarik; it was something I bought for myself at a school book fair. What are Tarik’s virtues? The ultimate standard to judge fantasy is that used by the grandfather in Princess Bride: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love [and] miracles.”

To be fair, Tarik does not have much in the true love department beyond Tarik being assaulted by a she-demon, who attempts to tempt Tarik to kiss her. Tarik does gain a female friend later in the book, but that is quite platonic. That being said; my younger self had yet to see such an absence of romance as a flaw. What Tarik has in spades are revenge and fighting. Tarik’s family is massacred at the beginning by an evil warlord, El Meurte. A pair of wise men save Tarik, train him to fight and send him on a series of quests for objects of power to aid him in seeking revenge. The second half of the book consists of Tarik pursuing his enemy, hacking his way through plenty of bad guys, even as he suffers loses along the way, while building up to the final confrontation.

Does any of this make Tarik great literature? Part of my present self is inclined to say no. There is no subtlety to the characters nor is there much rhyme and reason to why things happen. Tarik is given his motive in the beginning and then a series of set pieces that serve as obstacles to pass through before battling the big boss. In essence, this is a video game plot. As we are dealing with fantasy, it is hardly a criticism that Myers uses the tropes of questing and the arch-villain. His sin, though, is that there is nothing particularly creative in how he uses them.

On behalf of my younger self, let me respond that Myers wrote the book that I needed to read at the time I read it. If there is nothing sophisticated with the characters and plot, it is because I was being given the chance to experience hating someone and going on a thrilling ride leading to his defeat without any needless clutter. I have no problem defending action movies simply as action movies because they provide great fight sequences and the fighting in Tarik is certainly entertaining. If Myers shamelessly uses fantasy tropes, I needed to learn those troupes in their clearest possible form so I could appreciate other works of fantasy. Tarik was a good toy for me. It was fun to play with and, even if I did not realize it at the time, I absorbed something valuable regarding the mechanisms of good storytelling. As with all great toys, adults mock them at the risk of revealing that they flunked childhood and need to be held back a grade.

Maybe the most important feature weighing in favor of Tarik is simply that I remain emotionally invested in that book. A large part of that is precisely that this is a book that I discovered for myself and was never popular enough to be widely read by others. Thus, Tarik remains mine as if Myers personally read me this story. I almost selfishly wish that Myers never became famous, certainly not for other books. I want him to remain the author of Tarik, the book that made me a fantasy reader. Those fans of Myers who wish to take him from me for a higher purpose are free to try.   

Tarik is not the only book I have read that is special to me precisely because of its lack of popularity. Another example that comes to my mind is Grace Chetwin’s Gom series, a discussion for perhaps another time. So I ask readers, not what are your favorite books, but which books hold a special place in your heart precisely because few people have heard of them?