Reality Check

BackToSchool

Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School”  (1986)

I often wonder about my fellow professors who coo online about how great their classes are and how great their students are.  I wonder if what they are saying really represents the reality of their classrooms.  In some cases, their Rate My Professors page tells a very different story. (Though, yes, usually the most ignorant and laziest students are the ones leaving the harshest comments on RMP.  They’re all like “Ehrmygawd, she made us do WORK!”)

I try to avoid publicly disparaging students, though it is so very easy to go online and gripe.  I’m connected to a lot of professors on social media so I see the constant litany of venting about student behavior, and yes, I’ve contributed to it myself from time to time.  I get the appeal of complaining.  It can be cathartic to go online and scream with your friends about some of the blatantly disrespectful bullshit we put up with in classrooms, whether it’s students who email us with demands to recap classes that they missed, or students who show up half an hour late and start talking and texting, or the students who expect to get A’s for work that probably shouldn’t even be accepted in a middle school class, let alone college.

But in the interest of transparency I feel I should add a follow up to my previous posts. Looking at the evaluations from last semester apparently there were people in my classes who absolutely HATED me and hated the work.  I figured that was true of certain individuals, but it was enlightening to see it in writing.

In Contemporary American Fiction there was one student who said they hated the course and only took it because there was nothing else that fit their schedule, as if I am somehow to blame because they are too incompetent to manage their own goddamn educational program.  But whatever…

One of the most amusing comments was that “all the books were about the same topic: Black Authenticity.”   Hmm…now that’s interesting.  I didn’t realize that in the first four weeks of class when we were talking about digital media, print culture, intellectual property, and theories of the novel we were really just talking about black authenticity.  And I suspect  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, David Shields, Don DeLillo and even Teju Cole might be surprised to know that this is what their work is really all about.

You see, this is an example of what David Leonard wrote about in this article for the Chronicle.  Students often bring their own racialized perceptions to the classroom, and a different professor teaching the same books probably wouldn’t have received that comment.  But, when the black dude made you read 3 out of 7 texts by authors of color, somehow that equals “all the books were about the same thing.” Got it.  And I wish I could say such biases were limited to white students, but don’t even get me started about some of the attitude I’ve gotten from black students.

In that class, and others, there were complaints that I didn’t lecture enough.  Yes, you read that right, I did not lecture ENOUGH.  So much for all the snarky hipster pedagogues out there who keep telling us that millennials really want to be all collaborative and shit.  I had already suspected this myself, so it was nice to see the confirmation.  On the one hand, I take that as a sign the course was effective because it means they were not in the comfort zone of sitting passively and watching a professor talk.  I required them to lead the sessions in groups each week and that meant doing the kind of careful, rigorous reading that one must do in order to talk to others competently and at length about books that one has read.

But no, they do not want to take the lead and collaborate and do projects together because that means WORK.  What they really want to do is sit back and watch someone else talk while they fiddle with their phones.  Adjacent to that point were multiple comments from students in different classes demanding that the classes be more “entertaining.”  Now that’s a very telling word coming from people raised on screens and trained in the culture of amusements, isn’t it?  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is what Neal Postman wrote about some years ago.  I always include some critical media work in every class, so there is some space for intervention there, whether any of that critique actually sinks in.

All of this has made me feel I need to rethink my strategy in the classroom.  You can drive yourself crazy smashing your head up against the brick wall of institutional cynicism in higher education right now.  Profit-driven education means that schools admit unprepared, apathetic, insolent students and demand that professors teach these folks who are clearly uninterested in any kind of serious work.  It also means many of their professors are contingent laborers who don’t have the time or resources to teach them competently even if they wanted to.  But the students keep showing up with tuition checks so we’re required to “serve” them.  Too often, higher education today feels like a parody of college.  All the buildings are there, and there are people walking around, but it might as well be an elaborate movie set with actors, because there is little in the way of serious instruction and education going on.

OK maybe I’m romanticizing my own experiences.  Yes, Morehouse is an unusual place, and I was a diligent student and I associated with other students who were competitive and we challenged each other.  At the same time, there were also people around us going through the motions.  When I went back to campus a few years ago for a professor’s retirement symposium, the most common complaint among my former professors was student apathy.

It sounds old-fashioned, I know, but learning really does require discipline.  The way to really get results out of students is to demand a certain level of discipline from them, and I’m seeing that this is impossible in many cases.  There is a baseline of effort necessary from a student in order to teach them anything.  You can be the greatest music teacher in the world, but if you have a student who refuses to practice scales at home, then there is nothing you can teach that student in the one or two hours you are together each week.  A great coach cannot train an athlete who only shows up to practice and won’t work out on her own.  A mathematician cannot teach math to someone who won’t work on problems sets by themselves.  And so forth…

Part of our job as teachers is to coax that effort out of them, and I do that by having certain expectations of participation, and making those expectations clear from the very beginning.  Ultimately the goal is to get them to take over their own learning process and learn how to teach themselves. But that is very difficult in a situation where apathy is the accepted norm.  I’d love to run a classroom where if a student hasn’t shown up two or three classes into the term, then that student gets dropped.  But no, no. We have to let them in the class because they paid, and so now you get someone who missed all of the things I went over in the first two classes, hasn’t bothered to read the syllabus, and now I’m forced to waste time and energy and interrupt the flow of my class by repeating myself and going over the most basic shit that we already covered.  And rarely do these stragglers turn out to be eccentric future Rhodes Scholars.

We get students who are so apathetic that they won’t even buy a book (not even an inexpensive one) and won’t read anything, and turn in papers that completely ignored everything we went over in the class.  And please don’t give me that open-source crap, because I post free texts on Blackboard all the time and they don’t read that either.  Despite spending days going over research methodology I still got “works cited” pages that were nothing but numbered list of weblinks.  Twice last semester during research paper draft workshops – TWICE – I had students ask if they could leave since they hadn’t bothered to do the work.  (My answer: Of course you can leave whenever you want to, This is college!  There are consequences to every decision, but you’re never required to be here if you don’t want to be.)

I mean, what do you do with that kind of apathy?   I just don’t know.  I’m mystified by it, and I don’t understand it.  Why would a person keep showing up to do something they are so uninterested in doing?  Why does that person not have the guts to leave, go out and do whatever it is they believe is more important?  These are spiritual questions really, and I’m neither a priest nor an imam, so I can’t help with that.

On the other hand, I do understand.  Such students are the ideal customers for a profit-driven college system.  They’re sleepwalkers.  Rudderless.  Directionless.  They’ll show up with tuition money year after year, drag their educations out five, six, seven years, keep buying books and school paraphernalia, and food from the food court, and will get very little out of the experience.  Unfortunately, they occasionally do show up in classrooms, and we are expected to find ways to teach them even when they act like requiring the tiniest bit of effort from them is a human rights violation.

Yes, there are some who are worth the effort.  I have had some excellent students over the years, and there were some amazing students who did great work last term and and who I could see have potential to do great things in whatever fields they choose.  Those are the students I try my best to show up for and give a good class because they deserve to have a professor who can challenge them and make them better.  And occasionally if other classmates of theirs want to show up and make an effort along with them I am always willing to help anyone who at least tries to do the work.  Plenty of students have passed my classes over the years who probably shouldn’t have, but that was because they at least tried to do the work, and I’m not interested in screwing people over when I know they are making a real effort.  Because in making that effort, at least there is some learning taking place.  It may not be the ideal outcome I want, but the very practice of writing and reading will at least help them to develop these skills.

So I just wanted to add a dose of reality here if I’m going to be writing about pedagogy on this blog.  I usually try to avoid negativity and I am always conscious of protecting student privacy.  Mostly, I post my educational material here because, well, I’m a teacher. I want to share the knowledge from these courses with others who might be interested in the subject matter, and who might get ideas for teaching their own classes.  I know I’ve learned a great deal from what other professors post about their classes, and in many cases I’ve directly incorporated lessons, strategies and course policies I’ve found from other professors online.

So I felt like I needed to clarify, and yes, to vent a little bit, but from here on out I’ll try to keep things positive.  But believe me, when you read anything about classes on this blog, even when I do not say so explicitly, you can rest assured it was not written through the lenses of rose-colored glasses.

More Thoughts on Graduate School

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Women students of Tuskegee Institute marching in rows on campus, c. 1910s (from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture http://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19/toc.html )

I wasn’t really satisfied with what I wrote in my last post, so I decided to put together some more informal thoughts on finishing the degree.

In my previous post I said I avoid the “grad school advice” conversations, but that’s not really accurate. The truth is, I give graduate school advice all the time, and I’m willing to have that conversation with anyone who wants to have it. Giving this kind of counsel is part of my job as a professor. I work as an adjunct now, and in an adjunctified higher education system, I can’t tell my students to go have those conversations with their “real professors.” We’re the only “real professors” that our students are going to get most of the time, and that means being involved in all sorts of informal academic and career advisement, including writing recommendations and serving as references. And if I’m eventually fortunate enough to land a position where I advise graduate students, I’ll have these conversations with them as well. I’m far from the first person to point this out: we academics are now in the awkward position of having to discourage students from following in our footsteps. We can’t in good conscience tell them that there will be adequate jobs with adequate pay if they enter the profession now.

That said, I also agree with Tressie McMillan Cottom when she wrote that the “Don’t Go to Grad School” advice shouldn’t apply to everyone. As bad as the academic teaching market is now, college enrollments are still up, and students are still going, and there is still a dire shortage of women and faculty of color in academia. I see this reflected in the institution where I teach now, where the majority of students are black and brown. But the faculty? Well, not so much. It was a bit jarring in my first few weeks there to be repeatedly mistaken for a student when I walked into faculty spaces. And I ain’t that young anymore. That seems to happen less now that I’ve taken to wearing a jacket and tie regularly. But then that decision has led to a couple of weird encounters with an older white female colleague who seems to think that my wearing a blazer and a tie is somehow an invitation to come up to me and start patronizing me about my clothes and then complaining about the style of dress and habits of the students (again, most of whom are black and brown). Remember, I’m from Mississippi, so I’m well-schooled in the ways of white folk when it comes to pitting black folks against each other. Her unsolicited comments reminded me why I always count the Battle Royale scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man among the most powerful literary allegories for black politics in America.

What I really meant to say in that last post is that I tend to stay away from conversations about grad school advice online. Conversations in this medium tend to devolve into arguments with pompous douchebags bloviating about “choices” and “supply and demand” and “the market.” And, just as often, those conversations also involve listening to academics whose politics I mostly agree with, but who also portray themselves as pious, innocent victims in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with either. Maybe I don’t want to be that innocent. Maybe I really did “get over” by going to grad school. Maybe I like the fact that academia has afforded me a chance to do work that I actually enjoy doing (some of the time) instead of working at some soul-sucking job that I hated (all of the time). And maybe even with some debt and terrible job prospects, the Ph.D. has put me into a career that has, thus far, allowed me to live peaceably with the world, particularly given my own less-than-outgoing personality. Maybe, unlike some of my colleagues whose families are littered with advanced degrees, it means something to me to be the first Ph.D. in the family. Maybe I figured out, from experience, that all work sucks anyway (ALL.OF.IT.) and that work is a curse (hey, it even says so in the bible, Genesis 3:17-19), and so I’d rather work at something in the long run that gives me some pleasure and meaning in my life, even if it means making a little less money and being a little less respectable in the eyes of my hot-shot corporate classmates from undergrad who are making five times more than I ever will.

I went into this with very different personal expectations about what kind of life I would have with a career in academia, particularly going into English. I figured that for me, the house-car-2.5kids-retirement-in-Florida thing probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, and that I probably live more frugally now than most people are willing to live. I’ve scraped through with adjunct jobs and walking tours, and not everyone can do that. And I also happen to be the kind of queer who identifies with the old school queers who saw getting off the path of respectability as one of the benefits of queer life, instead of all these gay assimilationists now who want to get married and be monogamous suburbanites. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

I’ve also been the beneficiary of sheer dumb luck. I happen to have parents who have remained financially stable and healthy into their later years. (A teacher and a mechanic used to be able to do such things in America). I don’t have children to provide for, or other family members in dire need of support. It’s just the roll of the dice. One catastrophe could have changed all that. I say this because I hate listening to pretentious jerkoffs giving advice to other people without taking into consideration that other people may not be leading such a charmed existence, and might have responsibilities which limit the sacrifices they can make for their profession. I’ve been able to be responsibly irresponsible only because I haven’t had those kinds of responsibilities forced upon me by the circumstances of life. Getting the Ph.D. was a calculated gamble, and there’s still the possibility I could lose big. And there are times when I do regret not being able to do certain things for my family that I might have been able to do had I gone into a different line of work.  But I don’t regret the last few years either.  I’ve been able to do the kind of research and writing and intellectual engagement that I’ve wanted to do, and I do believe that I’ve put myself in a position to do more interesting and worthwhile projects that will pay off in the future.  But there are no guarantees.

I also know how to distinguish my own individual reasons for going into academia from the bigger picture about the academic labor system.  The professoriate in the American higher education system is sickeningly exploited through and through. From the conversations I’ve had with my own students about adjuncts, I know that  few of them even knew what an adjunct was before I told them. Now they know. And every student who comes through any class of mine will always know, because they deserve to know the truth about their own educations, and because this should be a part of their political literacy.

So, yes, I always advise people to tread carefully when it comes to grad school, but I don’t always say “don’t go.” That’s the irony I was going for with the theme of “over-education” in my dissertation. As black folks we’ve been “over-educated” since the first ones of us learned to read and write. And as of now, there are nowhere near enough black PhDs and professors to tell black students not to pursue a career in higher education. (The same goes for other minority groups as well.) Even some of those white academics you see online snarking about academia are at least lobbing their insults at the academy with degrees in hand.  And I’d even say that to students from  all backgrounds. Maybe academia really is the right fit for you if you’re passionate enough about it and willing to fight for it, and if you can find a way to do it responsibly without bankrupting yourself.

Yes, it’s a tough racket, and it will probably mean not living like a baller. And if you have family obligations, you do have to take those into consideration. And yes, you do have to be careful because your love for your discipline and your commitment to teaching and your loyalty to your students WILL be abused by the institutions you work for again, and again, and again, and you need to be prepared to push back against that abuse when it’s necessary.

My grad school advice is more along the lines of Charles Bukowski’s advice in “So You Want to be a Writer.”     

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it…

It shouldn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t take that kind of reckless sacrificial commitment to be a teacher. I wish we lived in a culture where the citizenry actually supported education and believed it was worthwhile to pay educators a fair wage, instead of believing in the cynical politicians who have turned teachers and professors into boogeymen. I wish the institutions that hire us now actually gave us the resources to do the jobs that we are asked to do, instead of expecting us to go above and beyond as the norm. But that’s not our reality right now.

I also know that the situation will never change without people getting involved on the inside, doing whatever we can in order to try to create something different, by whatever means are necessary.  Sometimes you really do have to be in the game to change the game.

Black Academic Fiction: A Working Bibliography

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy's

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders” staged by the Theater for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street, in November 2007.

Below is a bibliography of black academic fiction works that I have been able to identify so far.  Once again,  the annotated bibliographies The American College Novel (2004) and Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (2000) were rather helpful in locating several of the novels that I list here.

This bibliography is organized under the broad rubric of “academic fiction” to include different creative forms. I think this list shows the impressive range and diversity of academic fiction produced by black artists exploring many different aspects of higher education. However, once I got into the research process I decided that focusing on the genre of the novel gave me better critical possibilities.  (More about that later)

Essentially, I am focusing on works that have some significant content about  higher education or intellectualism as a major part of the plot.  I have excluded those works which might have an academic character or two but which don’t really deal with academic/intellectual life.  When I began this project, I intended to focus on black writers who have written academic fiction, and mostly that focus remains the same.  However, I do include some non-black authors whose books explore black higher education  (Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one of the most prominent examples).  Though I have done my fair share of reading, I will admit I haven’t vetted every single book on the list yet, so some cuts and additions are likely to happen.  The list is an ongoing project and suggestions are welcome.

BLACK ACADEMIC FICTION: A WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY

NOVELS

Anderson, Walter. Pledge Brothers. Arlington: Milk and Honey, 2001.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Avenging Angel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996.

Bradley, David. The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Briscoe, Connie.  Big Girls Don’t Cry.  New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Butler, Tajuana. Sorority Sisters. New York: Villard, 2001.

Carter, Stephen.  The Emperor of Ocean Park. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.
—-. New England White: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2007.

Colter, Cyrus.  A Chocolate Soldier. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.

Delany, Samuel R. The Mad Man. Rutherford: Voyant Publishing, 2002.
—-. Dark Reflections.  New York: Carroll & Graff, 2007.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Quest of the Silver Fleece: A Novel. 1911. New York: Random House, 2004.
—-. The Ordeal of Mansart, Vol. 1 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1957. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Mansart Builds a School, Vol .2 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1959. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Worlds of Color, Vol 3. of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Everett, Percival.  American Desert. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
—-. Erasure.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.
—-. Glyph. Graywolf Press, 1999.
—-. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Gay, Phillip. Academic Affairs.  1st Books, 2003.

Grant, Tracy. Hellified.  New York: Visao, 1993.

Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.1899. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Heron, Gil-Scott.  The Nigger Factory. 1972.  Edinburgh: Cannongate Press, 2001.

Himes, Chester.  The Third Generation. 1954. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

Hughes, Althea. Walking the Line. Arlington: E.R.L., 2000.

Jackson, C. R. Mistrustful. College Park: Media Management International, 2000.

Johnson, Mat.  Pym: A Novel.  New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011.

Johnson, T. Geronimo. Welcome to Braggsville. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Marshall, Paule.  The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.  New York: Random House, 1969.

McKnight, Reginald. He Sleeps: A Novel.  New York: Macmillan, 2002.

Moon, Bucklin. Without Magnolias. New York: Doubleday, 1949.

Morse, L.C. Sundial. 1986. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2010.

Murray, Albert. The Spyglass Tree.  New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Peterson, Brian. Move Over, Girl. New York: Villard, 1998.

Raboteau, Emily.  The Professor’s Daughter. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005.

Redding, J. Saunders.  Stranger and Alone. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Reed, Ishmael. Japanese by Spring.  New York: Atheneum, 1993.

Robinson, C. Kelly. Between Brothers.  New York: Villard, 1999.

Rosenman, John B. The Best Laugh Last. New Paltz: Treacle, 1981.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel.  New York:  Penguin, 2005.

Stribling, T. S. Birthright. 1922. Delmar, N.Y. : Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1987.

Thomas-Graham, Pamela. A Darker Shade of Crimson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—- . Blue Blood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—-. Orange Crushed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Tyree, Omar.  Colored, on White Campus: The Education of a Racial World. Washington, D.C.: Mars Productions, 1992.  Re-issued and re-titled as Battlezone.  Wilmington: Mars Productions, 1994.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Random House, 1999.

Williams, Dennis A. Crossover. New York: Summit Books, 1992.

Williams, Robyn. Preconceived Notions.  Chicago: Lushena Books, 1991.

Woodson, Jon. Endowed, a Comic Novel.  CreateSpace, 2012.

PLAYS

Jones, Leroi (Amiri Baraka).  The Slave (1964).  In Dutchman and The Slave: Two Plays. New York: Morrow, 1967.

Kennedy, Adrienne. The Ohio State Murders.  New York: Samuel French, 2009.

Rux, Carl Hancock. Talk. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2004.

FILMS

Birthright. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. 1939. Kino Lorber, 2016.

Brother to Brother. Dir. Rodney Evans. DVD. Wolfe Releasing, 2004.

Drumline
. Dir. Charles Stone, III. 2002.  DVD. 20th  Century Fox, 2003.

The Great Debaters. Dir. Dentzel Washington. 2007. DVD. Harpo Films, 2008.

Higher Learning
. Dir. John Singleton. 1995. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2001.

Mooz-lum.  Dir. Qasim Basir.  2010. DVD. Rising Pictures, 2011.

The Nutty Professor.  Dir. Tom Shadyac. 1996. DVD. Universal Studies, 2007.

School Daze. Dir. Spike Lee. 1988. DVD.  Sony Pictures, 2001.

Train Ride. Dir. Rel Dowdell. Ruff Nation Films. 2000. DVD.

Something the Lord Made. Dir. Joseph Sargent. 2004. DVD. HBO Films, 2004.

TELEVISON

A Different World. (1987-1993). Executive Producer, Bill Cosby.  Carsey-Werner Productions. DVD. 2005.

The Quad. Black Entertainment Television (BET). 2016.

STORIES

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Coming of John.”  The Souls of Black Folk.  (1903). Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004.

—-. “Tom Brown at Fisk in Three Chapters.” 1888.  Creative Writings by W. E. B. Du Bois: A Pageant, Poems, Short Stories, and Playlets. Ed. Herbert Aptheker. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1985.

Dumas, Henry. “The University of Man.” Echo Tree:  The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003. 176-188.

Hughes, Langston. “Professor.” 1935. Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Marshall, Paule.  “Brooklyn.” Soul Clap Hands and Sing. 1961. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1988.

McPherson, James. Hue and Cry. New York: Little Brown & Co., 1968.

OTHER

Bell, Derrick.  Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.  New York: Basic Books, 1992.

—- And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987.



UPDATED: 14 March 2017