מע טאר ניט (Me tor nit=Yiddish: “I dassn’t”)

Apologies for my long absence; all continues to be well and insanely busy in my life. Phil has been blogging like a champ, deep philosophical stuff, and I’ve been killing myself with projects, some of which may eventually be mentioned In This Space. I note Phil’s recent pieces with admiration because one of my projects is the closest thing to deep philosophical thought I’ve ever done, and it has almost finished me off—not, by any means, my strong suit. And it is high time for me to begin blogging again.

And recent pieces on of higher education have gotten me off the dime.

A much-linked piece by the pseudonymous professor “Edward Schlosser” has provoked a good deal of hand-wringing from the O Tempora! O Mores! set (whom, of course, ye shall always have with you) about “political correctness,” the unwillingness of students to confront uncomfortable ideas, to be challenged, and so on. I’m not going to bother with the reactions of the right-wing hyena caste (“You broke it, Sir, you bought it” is one typically perceptive observation); the very concept of political correctness is a pavlovian prompt for them, so we can move beyond their cackling, drooling reactions without further comment. Anyway, a brief summary of the piece itself:

It’s all the fault of political correctness (see the similar comments by impartial cultural scholar and observer Jerry Seinfeld). Schlosser’s “liberal” students terrify him/her because they’re afraid of new, uncomfortable ideas and resentful of positions not their own. And as a result, faculty are afraid to truly teach because the hypersensitive students refuse to tolerate even the possibility of both intellectual challenges and psychological triggers, and so free speech and the true openness of fearless intellectual inquiry—here represented in the person of “Edward Schlosser,” natch—are shut down. Faculty know they won’t be supported by their administrators; “Schlosser” cites adjuncts who did not have contracts renewed because of lily-livered administrators, students bullying faculty by refusing to hear challenging subject matter, which should be the job of higher education…and on and on. One of the money quotes: “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate.”

Is anything this simple? That anecdote sounds like a horror story one hears at the bar about someone this guy’s brother-in-law knew once. I wonder how Said and Twain were presented, and if “a little upsetting” were indeed the words used. I do know that faculty can be—can be, not by definition are—self-righteous as hell when they want to, ah, challenge student complacency, and deaf to their own tone. Personally, I’ve never known students to revolt because I chose to try to make them uncomfortable. Actually, more often it’s “Here we go. Bellman’s playing the ‘uncomfortable’ card again [*eyeroll].” And I remember that feeling from my own education, high school especially; you know when you’re being not only confronted but “confronted,” and often—for your own purposes—you choose not to play, not to take the bait, not to respond as desired. You’re accused of apathy, but maybe the teacher would like you to cry or wag your tail or provide whatever jack-in-the-box response s/he expects from People Your Age…and you see it coming. Maybe it’s on such a simplistic, black-and-white level that you sense you’re being condescended to more than confronted, maybe you don’t like being manipulated this way. And let us face it, there is a certain manipulative component in such “confrontation”—and maybe you just don’t want to play that stupid game. As a cynical California kid, I resented it for its predictability, though I’m not completely innocent: I once received the student comment, “He encourages us to express his opinions.” ZING!

The Great Unmentioned, here, is that in our pedagogical confrontation of student complacency, we often hide, not least from ourselves, a good dollop of paternalistic authority. I tend to rage against that, myself, and always did, so it’s hard to make the argument that it’s always Good For Them… Where is the dividing line between “trying to get students out of their comfort zones” and “gratuitously supercilious in-class posturing”? How willing are faculty to get out of their comfort zones, usually? As if! Student complacency amounts to a sort of cultural piñata for faculty grumbling, but intellectual complacency and rigidity is certainly not unknown among us, ourselves.

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Now, I have had people object to the content I present. A fairly recent example was when I gave a guest lecture in a Music Education class, “Music and Social Change,” a topic I was given. Well, party time, right? The Depression, Racism, the 60s…I don’t think I even made it up to Vietnam. The presentation seemed successful, with participation and discussion and so on, but I was later told that one of the students complained that I showed a youtube video accompanying Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit”—the song is about lynching—with actual photos of lynched Blacks in the south. She didn’t feel she should have had to look at it; I should have warned them and given them the opportunity to look away. To be clear: no “situation” arose, and the complaints only got to me much later. All I heard was that the professor in the class and another colleague sat this person down and said now look here, this is the part where you go to college and get your doors blown off, you should be thankful, your education is working as it should, etc. When I heard about this, I first thought “Now look here, I saw Holocaust footage in grade school and in junior high and no one asked how I’d feel about that, by God, I was made to confront…”

Self-righteous bona fides established? Good. I’m no longer quite so sure.

The issue of triggers—ideas or images or stimuli that cause unpredictable reactions in students and for this reason are others’ responsibility to avoid—is a recent concern, and another favorite complaint, and the entitled hypersensitivity of the poor spoiled darlings always implied. Sure, worrying about things like that can be annoying, and I suppose students can use such concepts on no more than a fraidy-cat basis. However, if we look at it from the being-human, rather than the why-don’t-you-thank-me-for-confronting-you angle: do I want to be the guy confronting people about rape in class when one of the students has actually been raped? Actually, a person who suffered that kind of attack doesn’t need to be lectured about his or her comfort zone by me, thanks, and it would be unforgivably hubristic for me to imagine that I had that right. Would it really be OK to have a Vietnamese boat person in class and rub her nose in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? How about if I, as a student, am taken out of my own comfort zone by a glib professor insisting that I look at things from a Nazi or White Supremacist point of view? I had distant relatives that died during the Second World War, but others have much worse stories. Is that the professor’s right? Am I an entitled little Scheiß for rejecting the prof’s authority to do such? College professors after WWI and WWII had students who came home deeply scarred—shell shocked, or as it’s called now PTSD. My suspicion is faculty would not have self-righteously tried to turn students out of their safe places, so to speak. Look at it from the Japanese point of view! Stop clinging to your tired assumptions! Perhaps Lebensraum was a reasonable idea because the Germans felt threatened!

Previously—perhaps during the Golden Age so mistily recalled by my fellow Baby Boomers—people who came from families where violence and trauma occurred were less likely to be in universities at all, since our institutions were peopled by a more privileged class. The problem wasn’t as acute. Today, we rightly seek to extend educational opportunity to everyone, but that means we share our learning space with more people who have been scarred by literal or figurative combat. I cannot make the case to myself that all the adjustment has to be on one side only.

The Point: there is no one right answer. On one level, students need to be made uncomfortable, yes—less secure in what they think they know, bless them, which is usually what they’ve been told by authority figures (parents, ministers, music teachers…). Faculty need to support the integrity of each other’s efforts, to communicate with each other, to bring the hammer down (one way or another) on students who—for reasons of immaturity—try to play cards they have no business playing. The purpose of tenure is to protect faculty from collegial and student caprice, but non-tenurable adjunct faculty need the same protections from student caprice just as students should be protected from faculty caprice. Administrators need to protect faculty, not their own convenience, etc. etc. But none of this is new: these are the standard concerns and circumstances of higher education. It has never been a perfect system; there are humans involved, and humans can be petty and stupid and self-absorbed and lazy. So the education process is in a sense devoted to getting us all, student and teacher alike, out of those particular comfort zones.

What does not help is concern-troll columns about how much better it was before/elsewhere, with the usual dire hell-in-a-handbasket predictions. Rather: it’s case by case. We try to educate—to challenge students and move them forward while remembering that justice is always to be tempered with mercy, and that we really haven’t walked in their shoes. Are some students spoiled and entitled? Sure, and we can (he said in a low, even tone) address that as needed. Single parents with emotional scars? They’re there too, folks. Do we feel the same about blithely making them uncomfortable? Say I’m a green Ph.D. student from a privileged background, teaching adjunct; how far do I really get to go with people who have not shared my advantages and potentially have wounds of which I cannot even conceive?

Critical thinking requires that the moment an opinion is stated, on a blog (such as this) or (especially) in the New York Times or some other high-profile opinion-making journalistic organ, the reader must ask what the author’s agenda is, does he or she have skin in the game, what this is really about. My suspicion is that if we all—students and faculty alike—had to face real scrutiny, we’d cork up fast. We all need to be called on our crap, all the time.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to מע טאר ניט (Me tor nit=Yiddish: “I dassn’t”)

  1. CJS says:

    Spot-on and very timely–great read, too. Wholly agree with you about the value of *sharing* the potential challenges to comfort-zone, rather than simply or loftily imposing them. As you say, being called on our own crap can be a sovereign remedy for hubris.

    These discussions also remind me, rather, of the occasional whiny pushback we hear from privileged pundits who object to the “imposition” of new or different or updated terminology to refer to minorities and disenfranchised groups: the “why do I have to learn the newest preferred nomenclature for [X minority group]? It’s so ‘politically-correct’…whine, whinge, etc.”

    When in fact it’s simply manners, and a modest recognition that people who have been derogated by imposed labels might have a particularly persuasive right to choose the preferred nomenclature.

    Part of being an educator, it seems to me, is seeking, developing, and maintaining a fairly acute and insightful sensitivity to the moments when some item of content might be difficult for someone. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach it, but it does mean–as you so rightly put it–that you are expected to display professional competence about what is “confronting complacency” or “jostling students out of their comfort zone” versus what is simply entitled insensitivity or outright bullying.

    Thanks for this.

  2. CJS says:

    Sorry to piggy-back on my own comment but–speaking of “political correctness”: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/huckabee-double-down-transgender-joke

  3. Jonathan Bellman says:

    There are just no words for MH—a little poseur-holy-roller thug. It makes you wish for a hell.

    And I’ve caught myself grumbling inwardly more than once: “Oh, we’ve got to say *what*, now?” Then I catch myself: wow, really? Too difficult to learn a new term? Too intellectually challenging for a guy with a doctorate? And when I learned about Roma and the word “gyp” and all that, and started applying it, I had some friends pull the same act. That was when I realized, in my mother’s words, “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.” And when I find myself inconvenienced by an accommodation I hadn’t previously considered, I tell myself rather bluntly to stfu, and that’s that.

    I was thinking “bullying” the whole time, but didn’t want to use the word. We’ve all been in that situation; the teacher is haranguing the class about some point with which s/he has already bludgeoned them, and no one’s playing. The teacher crawls up on the cross and cries about apathy, when in fact it’s shallowness and incompetence from the front of the room, and the students have found a way to call BS without calling BS aloud.

    In my experience, when a student has asked a question that has made me talk around the answer, think aloud, learn something, coming to a further mutual understanding…we’re collaborators for the rest of the semester.

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