These reflections were prompted, several semesters ago, by an incident in a seminar I was teaching on ideological critique. The participants were a group of extremely intelligent and widely read graduate students - all impeccably radical. Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion. Things finally blew up when one member of the class, making a class presentation, referred in passing to "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia." The phrase rolled off his tongue as though the individual words were simply syllables of one great polysyllable - stuck together by some sort of syntactical glue. Everyone in the class was quite comfortable with the phrase. It seemed to me that they found it reassuring, rather in the way little children snuggle down in bed when they hear "Once upon a time." All except a rather abrasive German student who interrupted to protest that she, for one, had nothing against classism. Indeed, she said, she regularly judged people according to their economic class, and thought it quite the right way to go about things. The class came to a dead halt, and no one knew what to say. None of the students had ever heard anyone question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia," used as a term of opprobrium. It was as though, in the middle of a class preparing little Catholic boys and girls for First Communion, a smart-mouthed trouble maker had piped up and said, "I can take the Father and the Son, but you can keep the Holy Ghost."
I pounced on the intervention - as the French have taught us to call it when a student says something in class - and did everything I could to make it the occasion for a searching examination of unacknowledged ideological presuppositions. That was, after all, the subject matter of the course. But it was a total flop. I simply couldn't get the students to see how mind-numbingly banal, how drained of all genuine thought, that phrase had become. I could not even get them to attune their ears to the ugliness of it as language. Freud says somewhere, talking about the dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy, that if there is a single topic that it is not permitted to examine in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic. I have always found this a profound insight into what happens in the classroom as well. A classroom in which it is socially or pedagogically unacceptable to question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is a classroom in which neither real teaching nor real learning can take place..--Robert Paul Wolff [recently published but written in the 1990s; HT Brian Leiter]
A few months ago I returned to Wesleyan University to give a guest lecture. Wesleyan was the site of my first professional job out of graduate school (recall and here). I adored my time there; my senior colleagues were all smart, interesting, and great mentors to me. The students were among the best I have ever taught. I had been offered a chance to teach another year as VAP, but when I realized there would be no tenure track opportunity down the road, I decided to try my luck elsewhere.
It's a great delight to return as a warmly welcomed, senior-ish scholar by the folk who gave me my first professional opportunity. And I loved being able to acknowledge their positive role in my professional formation. During my visit, I was reminded, however, that the first course I had taught at Wesleyan had been something of a disaster. I had not forgotten the experience, but was a bit surprised that several of the gang there also still remembered it, too, a decade later. It was an intro to social theory, and I introduced quite a bit of work on race, gender, disability, sexual harassment, etc. Not all the students were receptive to Fanon, Iris Marion Young, etc. (Yes, that also happens at Wesleyan.) In addition, and probably more important, the students had a very strong group identity -- they were in a special undergraduate college together and encountered me in their second or third year -- and I lost control of the class dynamics from the start (maybe even in the first minute), and never regained their trust. Even so, as the years passed about a third (!) of the students contacted me to connect their daily experiences with themes from the course. I also lucked out that Coetzee won a Nobel -- I had taught Disgrace in the course before he won it--, and this caused several students to seek renewed contact with me; anyway the course had lodged in my memory as a ''useful learning experience" (for me).
The quoted passage from Wolff describes a frustrating class-room experience. I have been surprised, however, that Wolff's post has been deployed to discuss contemporary strands of (what used to be called when I was younger) 'political correctness,' rather than as an all-too-common moment of disconnect among teacher, students, and course material because of some pre-existing commitments. (I should not be surprised because the uptake of the piece follows how Wolff frames it.) These disconnects are always a live possibility in philosophy (and presumably other humanities-style) courses that are oriented toward discussion and shared learning. (So, I am exempting large lecture courses and courses aimed at teaching technical skills, say, in logic. The previous sentence does not deny that the disconnects can occur there, too; but these tend to be unusual.) These disconnects tend to exhibit somebody's ideological or psychological commitment or -- since Wolff uses psychoanalysis approvingly -- resistance.
What I am surprised by is that after decades of teaching at different institutions (I warmly recommend his memoirs), Wolff is surprised by the existence of what he takes to be ideological no-goes and mantras [hereafter INGOEMS] in his students. As any modestly attentive reader of Plato can learn, this is the human condition. Of course, the content of such INGOEMS shifts around, and experienced teachers learn to discern and anticipate them and navigate around INGOEMS or use them as...ahhh...learning opportunities if they are or can be made to be relevant to the teaching aims of the course. Of course, not all INGOEMS generate classroom breakdowns (they may be simply irrelevant to the teacher's or students' pedagogical aims).
Moreover, it's not like all classroom breakdowns are always bad pedagogy. (They can be, and I have had my share of mishaps--see above.) Philosophy can cut close to the bone, and it is our duty, in fact, to engage with the intellectual passions of our students. As the Meno (and some other Platonic texts) teaches, this entails we also have to accept the danger of failures of education (by the students, and also by the teacher). But it would be a mistake, I think, to blame students for their unwillingness to confront and revise their INGOEMS in the moment in front of their peers (whose judgment they sometimes value more than their teacher's). More important, when INGOEMS are challenged in the classroom, the initial response may be quite negative, but it is worth remembering -- as my Wesleyan colleagues told me already a decade ago when they mentored me -- that the brains and passions of many students are still developing when they encounter us; the better sort of students can be prompted to revisit their intellectual college experiences and may draw on their classroom interactions with us and the texts or arguments we discussed as they trod on their paths toward wisdom (recall).