What’s a Teacher/Scholar to Do?

BY AARON BARLOW

There’s an essay on Chronicle,com by NYU professor Eric Klinenberg called “What Trump’s Win Compels Scholars To Do.” After discussing the overreach of Big Data, Klinenberg writes:

There’s one other thing that universities must do better: teach student skills for learning, discerning, reasoning, and communicating in an informational environment dominated by quick hits on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

He’s right. But I submit that we’re never going to manage that until we start seriously examining the impact of Big Data on our own classrooms. We’re taking the individual out of education just when we need her or him most. After all, social media are aggressively individualistic. To understand them, we have to understand the individual and educate the individual, fighting the corporatist tendency to concentrate on improving data instead.

The prevailing trend toward the aggregate as the spark of today’s educational decision-making is, in some ways, parallel to the current trend in literary criticism toward what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading.” It is often put on the other side of the teeter-totter from the ‘close reading’ of the New Critics: when the one is down, the other seems to rise.

Though I long felt oppressed by ‘close reading,’ I always used it, even when also examining a book or set of books from a ‘distant reading’ sort of perspective. I never want to lose sight of the individual reading experience, for that is the real heart of the matter—just as the individual experience is in education. In teaching, I don’t want to lose the individual dynamic either—yet I feel that happening when inundated with ‘student learning outcomes,’ aggregated assessment, lock-step syllabi and all of the other impositions from the corporate university coming down upon us today.

Klinenberg argues—rightly—that the faculty need to “help students navigate the new informational environment” and should push “universities to do more about inequality, and opening up more civic space to publicly discuss our enduring racial divide.” We are not going to succeed at this, however, unless we also refuse the mask of standardization that is being forced over our—and our students’—faces. As I have argued, we on the faculty need to reassert our individuality and the value of each unique contribution we can make to the personalized education of each student. We need to refuse concentration on the aggregate, on the average, taking the time to look each student in the eye—doing so with the confidence of real teachers, knowing we have knowledge to share and the skills for sharing it.

I’m as guilty as any of us in bowing to the neoliberal forces that have become the drivers of today’s higher education. I’m involved in program assessment, general education, departmental self-study and all of the other aspects of education today that take time away from what should be our first duty, substantial face-to-face interaction with our students. Though we continue to talk of the primacy of teaching, even in the community colleges in the system where I teach (CUNY) there’s a concentration on scholarship that necessarily strips time from students. Worse, the ‘service’ demands of all of these institutional initiatives saps the energy of the teaching staff and leaves far too little time for the real work of our teaching profession.

Part of the problem is that our institutions don’t trust individual variety. They have no means for evaluating it that they feel can be trusted, for it cannot be reduced to numbers, and numbers are the beating heart of the corporate being. The brilliance of the American system of higher education has been that it requires students to take courses from as many as forty different professors in the four years to a baccalaureate degree. Some of those professors will click with at least some of the students—and the institutions long allowed space for those relationships to grow and flourish to the benefit of the students. In addition, the students learned to take advantage of even those situations not particularly comfortable to them, learning from professors they claimed to loathe–though they may not know it at the time.

The other day, I happened to run into a student who had taken a course of mine quite a few years earlier. Neither of us could immediately remember what the course had been—it had been, after all, at least six years. He told me that he had completed a Masters degree since, something he had never even considered before my class (I urge my students to think beyond their immediate programs). A few days later, he wrote me:

Over the weekend I was discussing something with a friend and as has become common during conversations of that nature I found myself using the term “Code Switching”. As soon as I said it I remembered the name of the class I took with you (Language and Thinking ENG 1161) since that’s a term you used often. You probably didn’t know this until I saw you but you have done a lot for the course of my life. Once again, thank you.

One of the other things I tell my students is not to judge their classes until at least five years after they have completed them, for it is only in hindsight that one really understands value. This, of course, points to another of the dangers of the corporate educational environment where student evaluations drive way too much of education, evaluations too immediate to be of much real use in improving education. The drive toward the corporate model erases consideration of the individual long term: What is best for this particular student as a plan toward the individual future? Often, the student, operating from the limited perspective of youth, has only the most rudimentary answer to this, if she or he has an answer at all. Elevating their immediate impressions to driving forces in the implementation of education never can help them—though listening to them (and reacting to them) as individuals certainly does (the apparent, but unreal, contradiction in this is not something numbers can accommodate).

Klinenberg writes that “Doing serious scholarship and teaching requires throwing yourself into it, mind and body, and committing most of your waking hours to the job.” That does not mean committing ourselves to the burgeoning bureaucracies of education—which is what is happening to almost all of us (including me). It means taking the time and doing the work of focusing on each of our students as an individual—and providing scholarship that opens our intellectual discussions to more people, including our students (but that’s a topic for another essay).

Both, to me, are what Trump’s win compels us as scholars to do.

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