For Students

British scholar Sara Ahmed writes in The New Inquiry (with a slightly earlier and very little different version on her own blog, feministkilljoys) an essay entitled “Against Students.” She starts out:

What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilization, even to life itself.

The other day, I posted a piece that includes a plea for faculty to become more proactively “for” students—with the hope that students will become more active on their own behalf, that they will stop seeing themselves as consumers of education but will become activists in their own education. Ahmed, however, makes a good point:

We have an understanding of how, when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want. Students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will.  What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire called the “bank model” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.

Ahmed is reacting, in part, to an article by Terry Eagleton for The Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Slow Death of the University.” For her own purposes, she is not addressing Eagleton’s main point but is using him to illustrate how “we” faculty tend to sweep aside students even as, sometimes, we think we are “helping” them.

Eagleton, on the other hand, is bemoaning this:

According to the British state, all publicly funded academic research must now regard itself as part of the so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on society. Such impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical engineers than ancient historians. Pharmacists are likely to do better at this game than phenomenologists. Subjects that do not attract lucrative research grants from private industry, or that are unlikely to pull in large numbers of students, are plunged into a state of chronic crisis. Academic merit is equated with how much money you can raise, while an educated student is redefined as an employable one. It is not a good time to be a paleographer or numismatist, pursuits that we will soon not even be able to spell, let alone practice.

However, in his snide style, he allows an opening for Ahmed to make her own point. Ahmed writes (quoting Eagleton):

The consuming student is a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things, who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world).

Personally, I don’t care what the putative subject matter is of any course I teach. As a cultural-studies specialist in an English department, I see the goal of my courses as development of ‘ways of seeing’ as opposed to mastery of the nomenclature of the seen (substitute “reading” for “seeing,” if you want to be picky). I’ll bring vampires back to Victorians (that’s easy), expose the sexuality in Shelley (ditto), relate fanzines to Foucault (again… ) and open up the medieval world inside the contemporary one. I can talk about the similarities between Beowulf and rap and between the sensibilities of Sterne and postmodernism. Most of us could do the same. Eagleton could do it in his sleep. Ahmed probably could, too, though literature is not her field. It’s simply a question of starting where our students are, of not assuming they are something other than what they claim to be. What we want to do is expand boundaries of knowledge, not formalize them or limit them. It is not that students want the wrong thing, but that they don’t yet see the connections between their things and “our” things.

I went to graduate school to read Faulkner more fruitfully. That meant, I found, reading Anglo-Saxon poetry—among all of the other elements of English and American literature that I ended up studying so that I could reach my goal. My teachers were the one’s who showed me the ways I could go to reach my goal–and then my new goals later. I want my students to have that same opportunity I had, to explore as well as consume.

Eagleton’s conception of the consuming student could be better phrased as the “buying” student, the student as purchaser. All students consume. Of course they do. And all students should be in control of their education (one of Ahmed’s points), their desires front and foremost, not swept aside for the purposes of any agenda. Thing is (and this is one of Eagleton’s subtexts), students are not often in a position to know what—or even how—it is best to learn. That’s why they are students.

The ticklish part comes when faculty don’t concur with student agendas… and this happens more than we would like to admit. Here again, we need to put our own preconceptions aside (for the moment) and try to see where the student is, and to see from a student perspective. When students throw up roadblocks (objections to Darwin; fears of language; traumas from their pasts), we need to work with them to find ways around.

It is our job as faculty to map out for students paths they are willing to follow toward understandings of our disciplines that both make sense from student perspectives and that are flexible enough to allow for exploration, for deviation from the trodden. If we believe there is a value to understanding Victorian literature and our students are obsessed with vampires, the best way to open that literature to them might be through Varney the Vampire. Why not?

At the end of her essay, Ahmed writes that it is the job of the faculty “to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.” I don’t think Eagleton would disagree. I certainly don’t.


By Dcoetzee (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons




3 thoughts on “For Students

  1. Ahmed made some good points, including the one you cite above. But there was something so unnecessarily aggressive and ungenerous in her critique. It seemed like she felt taking the time to read her “adversaries” calmly, subtly or with context – to relax her thought-processes for a moment – would betray her ideals. It made me impatient, and then suspicious. I ended up questioning her motives, wondering if underneath the loudly announced principles there wasn’t just the drive of personal ambition at work.

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