Reflections on Teaching, III: Untitled

I think that—somewhere nestled between “paying for another year of graduate school” and “distracting me from my dissertation”—most TAs optimistically see their function as, on some level, “helping” their students.

If you asked me what that meant nine months ago, when I started teaching, I probably would have answered that my “help” would come in the form of some concrete skills and concepts, hopefully coupled with a decent grade. And, I suppose, I’ve done that, to an extent: I’ve watched some students grow in their writing, find their voice in class, and master the ephemeral relationship between habitus and social space. I’ve watched others coast, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.

Then, of course, there’s the more unexpected side of teaching. In the past year, my office hours have been an occasional site of unlicensed psycho-therapy, as I’ve heard about evictions, incarcerated family members, cuts to financial aid, the challenges of raising kids while in school, break-ups, debilitating depression and anxiety, and crushing parental expectations. As I recount this list, I realize how quickly I fall back on my imaginary of myself as at the forefront of public education; where once I was an activist, now I am a teacher, and have realized that—thanks to the personal complexities of my students and my own ability to see the context behind them—teaching and activism are pretty much the same thing.

Except, a month after the semester has come to a close, I’m so, so acutely aware of how from one-directional “helping” can be. In 2013, before I withdrew from school, I saw starting teaching as my last-ditch attempt to tether myself to graduate school and carve out a sense of personal meaning and efficacy. A friend advised me that I should never put that burden on my students, or to view their education as my emotional salvation. And yet, that’s exactly what, for better or for worse, this year turned into. Even when a dissertation topic once again seemed like a hopelessly unattainable goal and I sank back into frantic talk of leaving school, my classes forced me to get out of bed and get to school.

There’s an imbalance in teaching college courses which I never before realized. Our union contract says that we’re supposed to work 20 hours a week. If you really care, you almost invariably work more. But even if I was actually working half time, teaching has easily taken up 3/4s of my brain space: I dream about lesson planning, I fret about missing papers, I agonize over grading, I mull over whether sending another e-mail to the student who came to see me in distress and then disappeared is caring or harassment. For the students, though, I imagine it’s quite different. The students have five TAs, whose long emails and admonitions to “do the reading” melt together into mush. And I get it: after all, I can’t remember the name of a single TA I had as an undergrad.

I drew out the semester as long as I could. First I switched from proctoring a separate exam to the main room, where I could perch myself on the staircases leading out of the lecture hall. When the students turned in their exams, a few of them took the long route out, stopped by for a hug or a high five and to hear me wish them “congratulations” or “good luck” and to share a quick comment about a “great year.” But most of them walked up the other staircase. A quick wave, and they were gone. And then it played out again at graduation: some hugs, some photos, and then moving on.

I hope I always live in a place where spring means seniors leaving, anxious and excited, and fall means freshman arriving, anxious and excited.

Reflections on Teaching II: (White) Elephant in the Room

This is a post about race. In general, I would encourage you to read someone else on this topic—consider, for example, these blogs. Candidly, I’m not sure if the problem is that white males don’t talk enough about race, or if they talk too much and don’t listen enough. Either way, I’m thinking out loud about it, because race—I’ve discovered, to no one’s surprise but my own—is an ineluctable part of teaching.

My final act this semester was to address a re-grade request from a student who expressed his frustration with the white male theorists of the course and, only slightly more indirectly, the pedagogy of the white male TA who had been teaching them. He insinuated racism. I defended myself by noting the efforts I had made all semester to address inequality in the classroom. I’ve  realized too late that the latter claim in no way addresses the former; that is to say, whatever my intentions, racial bias almost certainly was part of my teaching.

I don’t want to fetishize the diversity in my course. Public universities are not representative of America, but in the long-bending arc of justice, I think they will eventually become more so. First the undergraduates, then later the graduates and TAs, and then—all too slowly—the faculty. Yet even if the demographics of the classroom may begin to represent the “new” America, the hierarchy—a white man in front, talking at people of color—will continue to look like the “old” one. I will, for my entire career, by whiter than my students, and yet the worst thing I could do would be to use that to wash my hands of teaching about race.

To be clear, I’m not weighing in about “identity politics” and “political correctness” or expressing some dismay about trigger warnings or having to tip-toe around gender pronouns. My student wasn’t complaining about language, but his grade—something which has real, material effects on him. The more generalized suspicion my students have towards my teaching doesn’t seem to be a result of “liberal” indoctrination or emotional fragility, but experiences exclusion and discrimination. So I wonder: how can you be an ally in the classroom, when you’re not really an ally, but a product and (willing) representative of an education system that is anything but your students’ ally?

– – – – –

I should be clear that, in writing this, I’m thinking about what I can do in the educational syste more-or-less as is, rather than what I’d love to see in some post-revolutionary Freirian utopia. One thing I need to do is to “own” my grading standards, and be honest about what I can and cannot control about them. As I wrote in my last post, I spent much of the semester encouraging students to critique the readings and connect them to current events. Yet in my oh-so-objective spreadsheet, with metrics of participation and blind-graded exams, I followed very different standards, those passed down from above and which, given my academic pedigree, seemed natural to me. When I went through the distasteful—but, it seemed, important—process of looking at the racial, class, and gender breakdown of my grades, it was clear there was a spread. Even with an unrepresentative sample, I can’t help but think that some students incorrectly took me at my word when I said I was looking for critical thinking, while others knew that, when presented with a grading rubric, I was just going to reward those who knew how to play the game.

Second, I’ve thought about the way I homogenized my students of color. I tried to compensate for a skewed syllabus by raising contemporary issues that, I thought, spoke more directly to students’ experiences. I steered us towards #BlackLivesMatter, to racist frats in Oklahoma, and over to the Civil Rights Movement. We were helped along by a few authors of color from the syllabus (Fanon and DuBois) and a few I threw in (Collins and Davis). But as one of my students pointed out, whenever we talked about race, we talked about African Americans, and through a lens of victimhood and oppression. I lumped my students of “color” together, and set them as a unified block against an equally unified mass of whites. Some were excluded and others were “othered” as the passive foil of American racism.

Third, I have learned from this—or perhaps, just learned what I need to learn. Sociology is a fragmented field; it’s impossible to be conversant in everything from Mathematical Sociology to Human-Animal Relations. Sometimes, I’ve felt that since our interests are arbitrary, it’s fine to bracket off some sub-fields: “you know about poverty, I know about mental health.” But there is no discussion of the social world that can evade race, class, and gender. Teaching sociology doesn’t require just attentiveness to racial dynamics in the classroom, but a deeper ability to see how they permeate everything we see, read, and discuss. And if our syllabi don’t reflect that, we nontheless need to be ready to point our students in the right direction to find these ideas.

Finally, and, I think perhaps more in contravention of the logic of ally-ship, I think we need to challenge our students to avoid unconvincing and easily dismissed arguments for diversifying the curriculum. Often, students demanded more authors of color—full stop—and one insisted she could never learn anything about inequality from someone who hadn’t “experienced” it (she assumed, incorrectly, that a certain white author had never experienced “symbolic violence.” Just being an author of color—say, Thomas Sowell or Ernesto Caravantes—doesn’t mean quality scholarship or liberatory insights on race. This is where I get on tricky ground—isn’t “excellence” in research, after all, defined by the dominant culture? But if we’re serious about social science—which, at its most basic level, insists that we accept that some perspectives on the world are more accurate than others—we have to accept that personal experience and social position is a source of data, but not a guarantee of truth.

W.E.B. DuBois was certainly excluded from the classical sociological “canon” because he was black. Many of his greatest ideas—the “second sight” or “double consciousness”—could not but have come, in part, from his blackness. But he should be included on our syllabi not just because he was black, but also because he was great, because he did serious empirical work, and because his claims remain generative for scholarship a century later. And I think that pretty much captures the dynamic I’m grappling with: students who have been excluded, students who have profound insights from that exclusion, but students who also deserve access to the best ideas of a discipline I still believe in.

Even if, for now, the bearers of those ideas are too often white males.

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.”