Reflections on Teaching I: Grading is Symbolic Violence

Teaching Bourdieu is unpleasant. The phrase “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” is one of the worst articulations of a great idea ever. His discussion of “symbolic violence” is equally (which is to say, not very) straightforward. Symbolic violence is:

Violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity…through a set of fundamental, prereflexive assumptions that social agents engage by the mere fact of taking the world for granted, of accepting the world as it is, and of finding it natural because their mind is constructed according to cognitive structures that are issued out of the very structures of the world.

We are subject to symbolic violence when we see our own domination through the eyes of the dominant—as something that is deserved, natural, or just.

Grading is symbolic violence. What we teach is the outcome of past struggles. Some ideas make it into our classrooms, others don’t; some skills are rewarded, others aren’t. Defining what counts as an “A” is an act of power, but it is power that is enacted invisibly. And the students are complicit in their own subjection because they play the game, assuming grades are fair and objective measures of their talent. They’re right to think so, precisely because they live in a world where talent is your ability to get the “A.” It’s a classic, hopeless Bourdieusian trap.

This may seem hyperbolic, but this semester, the way social inequality manifests itself in the classroom was just too glaring not to take stock. I was, after all, a white male instructor teaching a class of forty-one that had—literally—a single white male from a syllabus that was composed almost only of readings from white males. While I think the claim—which many Berkeley students are well-primed to make—that we can only learn about race from an author of color, or gender from a woman, is pretty facile, it was nonetheless obvious that my students were struggling to assimilate knowledge that they knew was, on some level, not their own.

And so, with a bit of prodding, I changed things up a bit. I threw in some extra theorists, an awkward lecture on intersectionality, an extended class on Fanon and Said (who had been brushed over in lecture). More than that, though, I pushed my students to critique the theorists. I did my best to create a class where we analyzed the underlying assumptions and broader implications of social theory, rather than reiterated definitions and key concepts from lecture. I don’t want to oversell myself, but, halfway through the semester, many students who had seemed detached before had plugged in. And on the exam, it showed: their essays abounded with examples and extensions and critiques that never would have occurred to me.

Except that’s not what I was grading them on. I had a key, provided by the professor, for the essays. Multiple choice questions brook little interpretation. Lest I offload all the blame, in the end, my habitus is still that of an upper-middle class Princeton kid. And so I sat down to grade, and imposed the standards of good work I’ve been taught to value—analytic precision, clear exposition, accurate interpretation. When it was all done and I tallied up my eminently fair and objective spreadsheets of participation points and paper grades, my heart sank. I had taught my students one thing, and tested them on another. Maybe they’ll realize, or maybe they’ll see the As and Bs and Cs as honest measures of merit.

9 months ago, writing about the end of grade deflation at Princeton, I certainly didn’t see this that way. The playing field at an elite institution like Princeton, I convinced myself, was level enough that grades really did reflect some mixture of talent and effort. But at Berkeley, I can’t not see it: the way certain students struggle with my insistence that papers include an “argument,” while others conjure A papers the night before because, well, they’ve been doing it for a decade. The way some students breeze through the readings while other struggle in a language that is not their first. The tiredness of the students working three jobs when I ask them to recall a concept from a few weeks ago.

If grading is so violent, why do I do it? Perhaps because, when I see other GSIs using inflated grades to make up for the disadvantages imposed by an under-resourced public school, I can’t help but think they’re—in the long term—rendering those public diplomas worthless. Or maybe, I convince myself, teaching students to write, read, and talk like the dominant group might help them claw their way into it. Or maybe I’m just a coward. Teaching is a mind-fuck.

Planes, Brains, and the Unexplained

Perspective for those who observe mental illness, but for me, as a subject, this tree bore only dry and tasteless fruit. . .

I have a chemical imbalance; I really didn’t feel those things.

I have a chemical imbalance; I didn’t really experience those things.

I have a chemical imbalance; I didn’t really think those things…

Here is an insight! The entire human drama of love, suffering, ecstasy, and joy, just chemistry.” – D.A. Granger

We know more about Andreas Lubitz by the day. First we learned he was “mentally ill.” Then we discovered he “had depression,” followed by the revelation it was in fact “severe depression” and that he had “suicidal tendencies.” What we don’t know is what any of these categories mean.

“Mental illness” is the wastebasket that catches the leftovers of medical diagnosis. That is not to deny that mental illness is real, and that it can be as terrible as any physical ailment. It is only to say that mental illness is, almost by definition, that which we cannot explain, and if we can explain it, it is not mental illness. Huntington’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis were once under the purview of psychiatry, until scientists came up with more convincing accounts of the biology behind them, at which point they left.[1] When we say that Andreas Lubitz was having vision problems, but that they appeared to have a psychological rather than physical origins, what we are really admitting is that neither he nor we can explain them.

Technically, we do have a widely-accepted explanation for mental illness, albeit one that changed drastically with the rewrites to the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual in the 1980s. Gone were psychoanalytic stories about social environment and upbringing, in were biology and neurotransmitters. We can see this shift in the media discourse around Lubitz. It’s not that he “was depressed” in the sense of some internal personality trait; rather, he “had depression,” a disease that had invaded his brain from the outside, and—to re-purpose Freud’s phrasing—sat there like a garrison over a conquered city. Admittedly, this is a metaphor that has given me much comfort in hard times: baby, I was born this way, and so, perhaps, was Lubitz.

A biological approach to mental illness was supposed to reduce stigma towards the mentally ill by suggesting that they bore little or no responsibility for their condition. This, however, was contingent on the idea that biological understandings would improve treatment; otherwise, those with mental illness simply become a class apart, indelibly marked apart until their faulty wiring can be corrected. As it turns out, as the promise of atypical anti-psychotics or second generation SSRIs has faded, this is precisely the view that has come to predominate: in one survey of 14 European countries, only 16% of respondents believed that the mentally ill were responsible for their condition, but over 50% described them as dangerous anyway.[2] In the U.S., the public is increasingly likely to endorse treatment for people with schizophrenia, but actually more reticent to live or work with them.[3] Science has convinced us that a cure is right around the corner, but until that point, we’d prefer to keep our distance.

Mental health advocates have already raised red flags of how the Germanwings crash could worsen exclusion of depressed people. What they largely haven’t challenged, though, is the very notion that we can say anything meaningful about “depressed people,” whether or not it is stigmatizing to do so. The DSM diagnosis of depression is an arbitrary five out of an arbitrary nine listed symptoms, present for an arbitrary two-week period. 20% of Americans will meet this criterion at some point in their lives; drop the bar slightly, though, and the figure jumps to 62%.[4] At this point, it becomes absurd to think of “depression” as a meaningful way to determine who is fit to take others’ lives into their hands. Depressive symptoms are distributed throughout the population. But if you follow the bell curve to its extreme, you never reach the point where “mass murder” becomes a predictable outcome.

Doctors like having an explanation. So do families who have lost loved ones in an act of unspeakable horror. But I think we should probably accept that the tragedy of the Germanwings crash—just like the tragedy of mental illness, which I see all around me in my students, my peers, and myself—is likely to remain, on some level, inexplicable.

– – – – –

[1] Jutel, Annemarie Goldstein. 2011. Putting a Name to It: Diagnosis in Contemporary Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press: p.30.

[2] Evans-Lacko, S., E. Brohan, R. Mojtabai, and G. Thornicroft. 2012. “Association Between Public Views of Mental Illness and Self-Stigma Among Individuals with Mental Illness in 14 European Countries.” Psychological Medicine 42(8):1741–52.

[3] Pescosolido, B. A. et al. 2010. “‘A Disease Like Any Other’? A Decade of Change in Public Reactions to Schizophrenia, Depression, and Alcohol Dependence.” American Journal of Psychiatry 167(11):1321–30.

[4] Kessler, Ronald C. and Evelyn J. Bromet. 2013. “The Epidemiology of Depression Across Cultures.” Annual Review of Public Health 34(1):119–38.

You Are Here

The months tick upwards. I tried to write this as four months, rewrite it at five, post it at six. I wish I could say it was because I wanted to say everything perfectly, but it’s not. Life overtakes us, and promises we make glibly to ourselves—“I’ll think of her everyday”—are forgotten fast.

She always blinked in and out of my life. When we met I was in ninth grade and—as she frequently reminded me—obnoxious enough that she needed to be high to sit in the same room as me. That this was her coping mechanism pretty much explained why I wanted nothing to do with her. At some point in college, though, she read a blog I posted from the health center at Princeton and got in touch. It turned out we had something in common.

Mental illness brought us together, but it wasn’t always the basis of our friendship. For a few years when my parents moved to Oregon, she was the one I asked first to stay with when I went back to Arizona, which was still home. We’d drunkenly wander the playground at our old elementary school or laugh at our mutual sense of disaffection any time we ran into old schoolmates on the streets of our not-quite-big-enough hometown. But it seemed as if she was always doing worse and worse, whereas I was pulling out of adolescence and convincing myself that being sick was a bit like having a Mohawk: a phase. I didn’t exactly cut her off, but I definitely stopped making efforts. Messages—maybe even some messages sent from a hospital—went unanswered.

When I slunk back to Flagstaff in the fall of 2013, I called her up again. She was rightly disgruntled, and yet almost instantly my best and practically only friend. When you’re depressed, there are no shortage of people willing to inundate you with well-intentioned advice or enumerate all the great things you have going for you. She didn’t. I’d call her up and tell her I was hitting rock bottom; she’d tell me she’d been there for a while, but come over anyway. So much of being sick is waiting: for impossibly far-off psychiatry appointments, for meds that may or may not kick in, for inexplicable cycles to reach their denouement. She knew you had to wait, but that it was better not to wait alone.

The truth is, though, she was screwed. I often curse my own depression not because, objectively, I’m all that badly off, but because it creates an ever-widening disparity between what I think I should be able to accomplish and what I actually manage. But the drugs worked for me. For her, though, it was the kind of inexplicable, beyond-the-pale shittiness that brooks no explanation and answers no treatment. She knew it, and I did too. It’s hard to be a good friend when all the standard tropes—the “it’ll get better”s and the “no depression lasts forever”—no longer apply. This time, when I left, I stayed in touch. But it was different, stretching across the alternate universes of being well and being sick.

I’d probably be calling her again, these days, if she were still here. One thing she always told me was that just because something good didn’t last doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. I had a good fall semester: I passed my quals, found a new passion in teaching, finished my book, and made some new friends that made me think grad school didn’t have to all be misery. And, in between the list of accomplishments we enumerate in the hopes of giving our lives meaning, I even felt okay. It didn’t last. It’s always hard to tell if the world has changed—my sections don’t seem to be going as well, the dissertation seems inching along even more slowly, and I feel the horizon of possibilities for my life narrowing—or if I’m just cycling, again.

The second thing she always told me was that, at some point, you’ve got to move on. When I was at home, she informed me—matter-of-factly—that after a semester off, I was going back to school, whether I was better or not. I was lucky to have been “better,” but she embodied the alternative: of living a rich, full, generous life, and being miserable anyway. I’m pretty skeptical of the depression-makes-you-a-better-person trope—she was a great person in spite, not because, of it—but I am thinking about her example these days, as I wonder about how to get on with my life while accepting that maybe new drugs and a few months in France haven’t completely changed the wiring in my brain or bottomless pit in my brain waiting to be filled with a sense of self.

Someone told me, six months ago, how lucky I was to have been the last person to talk to her. Whoever said that didn’t know how she sounded that night. I don’t think that, in six months or six years, I’ll figure out if I should have done more that night, or if she called me precisely because she knew—given our history—that I wouldn’t. I can’t say if she were here if she’d forgive me. She probably wouldn’t. She’d let me be with my sadness, but be with me at the same time. It’s a rare form of love that I miss so, so much.

Black & White & Shades of Grey

It’s a bit belated to write something about #BlackLivesMatter. Although the timing isn’t exactly intentional, I would half-justify my non-blogging by arguing that “now”—as in, “late”—is the perfect time to say something, precisely to make a small contribution to this issue not simply fading away (again) or to continue my own attempts to be something better than a just-occasional ally.

I have nothing to say about the issue of policy violence against black people itself—try reading some bloggers of color?—but I do want to vent a bit of sociologically-inflected annoyance at some of my white friends. As much as I’ve thought this is a minimally-demanding cause we can all get behind, I’ve had repeated rejections of my requests that others join me in walking in the streets for an hour or so to help elevate the voices of people of color.

The reason—that is, the articulated reason, which I’ll charitably say is not just a cover for racism—which I’m frequently hearing from my liberal-but-not-quite-left friends is that the movement is just not quite to their liking. They’d like demonstrations, but without the broken windows. They’d like people to shout “Black Lives Matter” but to refrain from “Black Power.” They’d join if only there was an a clearer structure, a well-articulated list of achievable demands, a leadership hierarchy.

Of all the concepts I taught last semester, Durkheim’s notion of “social facts” was probably the most important. It’s a simple idea: that there are institutions and patterns of behavior outside of us that constrain our actions and exist independently of anyone’s volition. But it was tough for my students to grasp (and not just because, as a novice, I flubbed the explanation). The notion of “social facts” runs against the American ideal: that we are all free agents, constantly remaking the world around us according to our own preferences.

Maybe most left-of-center people would accept that institutionalized racism, police lynching, and white privilege are “social facts” of American society. Yet when it comes to social movements, they imagine that we can—and should—only participate when things are exactly to our liking. I’ve received more than one message with a laundry list of things that the movement should do—advice about tactics, structure, and demands—that seem to suggest that people think there is some secret cabal that actually designs these things, and that, if they expect people to join in, they should design things better.

The reality, of course, is that big movements with the capacity to change society never really reflect anyone’s preferences. Instead, those movements are products of the very societies they are trying to change, and they embody their pathologies. #BlackLivesMatter has people who break windows because our political system has made people disillusioned with non-violent protest. It has clueless white allies because internalized racism doesn’t disappear overnight. It has the occasional outlier who takes the rhetoric too seriously and kills someone—because our society produces marginalized men, empowers them with gun ownership, and provides a ready stock of models for violent lashing out through such respectable channels as the Tea Party and radical environmentalism.

What I mean to say is: people want their movements a la carte, but reality is a bit more like a set menu. While those inside movements can try to push them one way or another, ultimately most of us have to make the simple decision of whether we’re on board with the movement—flaws and all—or not. And if you choose “not,” you don’t get to take society a la carte either: the fact that you’d prefer a world without police violence against black people doesn’t matter unless you’re willing to act to make it so, and, despite our post-modern conception of politics as self-realization, “acting” still means aligning yourself with some collective, assuredly imperfect vehicle for change.

Now, admittedly, our expectations for widespread participation in any movement should be incredibly low. Even in revolutions, most people sit out (yesterday’s demonstrations in France captured an eye-popping 5% of the population… which was still fewer than attended world cup celebrations). Even at the height of the civil rights movement, most whites thought blacks were pushing change too hard and too fast. When people tell me they’ll plug into the issue when Martin Luther King Jr. appears, resurrected, riding a peace-loving unicorn and leading a rainbow coalition of well-behaved rhetorically-measured activists, they’re admitting—knowingly or not—that all things considered, they’d rather just leave things as they are.

I tend to get labeled as overly black and white about these things: are you in or are you out? But in truth, it’s the people who expect movements to be flawless before they lend their support who are moral perfectionist. I actually get that both movements and societies are both shades of grey; it’s just that I want people to choose between the hues.

Crowdsourcing My Book Title

My publisher thinks my proposed book title is juvenile and/or terrible. I think their proposed book title is juvenile and/or terrible. This is horribly self-indulgent and sounds self-promotional, but since I live in a bubble I am genuinely interested in what people would think would be a good title. The less you know about the content, the more I value your input (really).

EXCITING UPDATES: It seems that some people aren’t actually sure which title is mine and which one the publisher proposed. I actually think it’s perhaps better left ambiguous! Also, we now have two write-in candidates (I will leave the guilty parties unnamed for proposing these): “Dumpster Dynasty” and “Going Down On America’s Junk: Freeganism and Food Waste in 21st Century America.”

The Add/Drop Dance

The course I’m TA-ing this fall is required for undergraduates majoring in sociology. It is thus heinously oversubscribed. For the first three weeks of class, we circulated a sign-in sheet in lecture. Actually, we circulated several. Some students signed every single one—one person literally signed-in four times in one day and then came up to me after class to check to make sure I saw she was there.

The students are right to be scared. At Berkeley, if you miss one section or one lecture in the first three weeks, you’re automatically dropped from the course. It’s the raw arithmetic of the neo-liberal university. Even after our weeks of culling the herd, however, there aren’t even enough chairs: our class was placed in a lecture hall with fewer seats than students, so to get peoples’ attendance, I had to scramble around among students sitting on stairs, against the back wall, and out in the hallway.

I tried to shield my students as best I could. I fudged a few records and I quickly caved to the student pleading for me to expand the size of my section to accommodate him (a brilliant solution to underfunding, by which I teach for free). Now, halfway into the semester, my classes are set, and, to be honest, I haven’t been this infatuated since high school. I adore my students. Teaching has given me a new sense of the value of graduate school and, for the first time in a long time, the confidence in the future that comes from having a “calling” in life.

In my usually unsuccessful efforts to make class “relevant,” on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement—an event marked with an administration-sponsored rally attended mostly by people older than my parents—I tried to obliquely raise the school’s activist history in section. I asked what going to Berkeley “meant” to them and to those in their family (we were talking about Weber’s analysis of the meaning of social action). I expected at least one of 41 students to say something about “radicalism,” “hippies,” or “protests.” Not one did. Instead, they talked about Berkeley being “elite,” “selective,” and “prestigious.”

I should have known. Getting into Berkeley is, of course, an achievement, one that for many of my students signals that they’ve caught one of the last few rungs on a ladder of upward mobility that our ruling class is rapidly pulling up behind it. I see the rankings; I see that my students have made it to the nation’s “Number One Public University,” and that this is, by all accounts, a privileged institution. I know that, whatever my complaints about the institutional context at Berkeley, I would have to multiply them by two before talking about another UC school; by ten before remarking on conditions at Cal State; by one-hundred before even mentioning the community colleges from which 40% of my students come.

It’s just hard to square the crammed classrooms, overworked TAs, and jockeying for spots in required courses with my experiences at the “Number One Private University.” My students ask me about Princeton; I tell them they’re just as smart as the students at Princeton, and it’s true. But it’s also true that the Ivy League considers itself above admitting community college transfers, people working three jobs to support their siblings, ex-convicts, and students in their 40s. I also tell them that Berkeley is harder, and I’m not lying. We had a hearty laugh at the fact that 35% A’s was too low for Princeton students. Nonetheless, I realize how, in so doing, I am reinforcing the double burden that every student—graduate or undergraduate—professor, and staff person at Berkeley faces: that of maintaining a top-tier institution with third-tier funding.

I read today that, through tax deductions, Princeton gets a $54,000 a year subsidy per head from the federal government. Here, state funding languishes at $7,500 per person, and spending per pupil has fallen 25% since 1990 to $15,000 total. But what does Princeton’s money buy you that you can’t already get at Berkeley, one of the finest universities in the world? It buys you an institution that respects you enough to have clean bathrooms. It buys you courses where the papers haven’t been replaced with exams to save graduate student labor. It gets you a TA who doesn’t have to hold his nose at grammatical mistakes and basic composition errors because his contract limits his hours and his professor says it’s not his job to fix California’s broken high school system.

At an event for the FSM anniversary, Professor Wendy Brown said something striking about the comparative “apathy” of today’s youth. In the ‘60s, students had to fight for free speech, but they could take a free public education for granted. Today, students have speech, but they don’t use it, because they’re too busy fighting to get an education. It’s just too bad that this “fight” takes place in the back of a lecture hall, as students vie to get a goddamned chair.

On the Appropriate Role for Assault Rifles in a Civil Campus Community

In the “national conversation” that we’re largely not having about militarized policing, I have nothing important to contribute. For what it’s worth, I forced my undergraduate Sociological Theory class to apply different theorists’ analyses to recent events in Ferguson. I’m vaguely aware of ongoing police surveillance, disruption, and violence in communities of color, and I’m lucky enough to have enough radicals on my news feed to know that we don’t know how many black people the police execute each year. But for me, in my citadel of privilege, it’s all background noise.

I did, however, see a University of California Police Department officer the other day walking from her car – parked on the street outside my office – into the underground, mostly hidden campus police station. She was carrying an assault rifle and a shotgun.

As it turns out, there’s more where that came from. That same day, the Daily Californian reported that UC Berkeley’s PD actually has 14 assault rifles, which they got from one of those federal programs that gives away military toys the same way the Engineering Department occasionally sends the social sciences some old computers. I checked the campus news for that day, to see if there was any plausible reason for the PD to be breaking out its heavy weaponry. According to their spokesmen, the rifles are necessary because its 9mm pistols “won’t defeat the body armor.” I’m not sure whether it was the Dean of the School of Education announcing her resignation or some students starting a campus version of BitCoin which created the need on this particular day.

This would all be sort of comical – I mean, comical relative to the not-at-all comical uses of military weaponry in Ferguson – if the UCPD hadn’t actually killed a student. I don’t know if any of my Princeton friends – accustomed to unarmed “P-safe” officers whose job it is to tell you to turn the music down at your illegal dorm-room party full of under-age drinkers – caught that, so I’ll repeat it: UCPD killed a student. By all accounts, it was suicide by police: a “troubled” (yes, it would seem so, seeing as he had multiple previous attempted suicide attempts) student brandished a gun in the business school and they killed him. His name was Christopher Nathen Elliot Travis.

The incident has stuck with me, but it’s disappeared from institutional memory. The Daily California makes no mention of it beyond one-week after the event. The UCPD annual report from that year does not see the incident as meriting a reference, although in the third paragraph they do state that their big event of the year was that they “hosted a very successful scenario on our campus that simulated the hostile takeover of an animal research lab, complete with escaped primates challenging the teams.” The crime statistics state that no homicides happened on Berkeley’s campus that year. The “independent” campus police review board also made no investigation into what happened, presumably because Christopher did not file a complaint in a timely manner.*

Perhaps the date of that unmemorable killing – November 9th, 2011 – sticks in my mind because it’s the night I was arrested by UCPD. I actually still see the officer who broke my ribs, booked me, and then lied to the police review board about it, telling them I was “cocky” because I asked for my rights, on a regular basis. Police still freak me out. But this is small change. As a _____ (insert list of synonyms for “privilege”), I don’t get beaten, arrested, or shot by police at random. But when I look at my sections for the course I am teaching, I realize that most of those adjectives do not apply to them. 80% of my students are non-white. My black students come from a community in which five unarmed men have been killed in the last month by police; my Latino students from neighborhoods where the police are the means for tearing families apart; many of my foreign students from countries where the police are the enforcement arm of authoritarian states.

“Trigger warnings” have been a buzzword of public discussion of academia in the last year. The justification for “trigger warnings” is that our students have suffered forms of trauma that might be resurrected through exposure to sensitive material. I have mixed feelings about whether course content should be subject to trigger warnings; but while we’re on the subject, perhaps we should also consider the trauma of our students who have watched their families, neighbors, and people who look like them get deported, beaten, frisked, imprisoned, arrested for kissing their white partner, or shot. I don’t even approach the level of having suffered “trauma,” but I for one would like to know when and where representatives of the only campus group that have killed a student will be, so that I can – for my own safety and psychological well-being – stay the fuck away.

Like I said, I have nothing to say on this. I have no way to comprehend what it’s like to be constantly victimized by the police, because it isn’t part of my history. But I do speculate that, for at least some of our students, a “civil” campus climate might start with an absence of assault rifles and, while we’re at it, any institution that thinks it needs assault rifles to be part of campus life.

*Of course, we could say that students waving guns is exactly why we need police: then again, this is just ceding the terrain to idiocy, since we could also just say – as many other advanced countries have – that people shouldn’t have guns, and watch our homicide and suicide rates drop in tandem.