[lbo-talk] posh as fuck

Wojtek S wsoko52 at gmail.com
Mon Dec 5 17:41:14 PST 2011

Michael:" But here is something I wrote that Inside Higher Education published: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/05/28/yates"

where we read: "Over the years, however, my love affair with teaching faded and finally ended. I do not give my post-test pep talk very often, and the skilled work of preparing the lectures seems wasted effort. The theatricality of the actual teaching has become rote, something I do because I need a paycheck. I still do it better than most, but then, in my experience, most professors are pretty inept. I have tried to figure out why I have lost interest in my job. The students are a big part of it. Their past “mis-education” and total absorption in consumer culture have made most of them incapable of critical thinking. They want instant gratification and cannot be bothered with the work of learning. College, like high school, is just another hoop they have to jump through to get a job that will pay enough money to keep them in cars, houses, VCRs, cell phones, and all the trappings of middle-class living."

[WS:] How very true. What a great story!

I do not consider myself a good teacher, I would probably qualify for what my wife's handbook on "skillful teaching" (a new fad in K12 education) describes as a "mediocre teacher." Someone who satisfies the minimum requirements but does not go an extra mile to motivate the students. But then, I see no reason why I should bend backwards to motivate anyone to do what they don't care about. When I was in college the prevailing attitude was that it was the student's responsibility to learn, often despite the teacher.

So I tried to get something even out of really really bad teachers. For example, at San Jose State I got quite a bit out of guy who could not teach to save his life. He knew his narrowly defined subject rather well, but that was it. He spent the entire class time mumbling something to himself and following his own train of thought, while students were sitting with the WTF expression on their faces, if they bothered to show up at all. It is difficult to think of a less effective teacher. But then I was very much motivated to change my job (more about this in a moment) so i was very determined to get my degree asap. So I did his classroom assignments and eventually got interested in the subject, and at the end decided to use it in my master's thesis. Needless to say that I had to do everything by myself, the guy was useless as an adviser too, and I got more out of a university appointed reviewer of the draft of my thesis.

Now about my first teaching job. I worked as a civilian instructor at an Department of the Army training facility in CA. I hated the army, but I needed the job. I had no prior training as a teacher, but I knew the subject so I got the job. Most of fellow instructors had no prior teaching experience either and their academic credentials were often questionable (mine at least were not.) I knew very well that most of my students had no interest in the subject, they studied it because the Army told them so. So I did not work particularly hard to teach them against their will, but when someone asked for help I made an effort to explain the problem as clearly as I was able to. That set me apart from other instructors who simply told to RTFM, so as a result I was able to develop good relationship with most of my Army students. This was pretty odd because our political views were on two polar extremes - I was a pacifist, an atheist, and a lefty, they were mostly conservative, christian and militaristic. But somehow we managed to develop a weird form of trust.

In any case, I hated the army and could not wait to get a US degree and an academic job. When I working toward my PhD at Rutgers I got a TA position as a part of my financial aid package and this was the first and the last time I taught undergraduate courses at a four year university (as opposed to a community college.) It was a dreadful experience. Most of the students were of the kind that Michael described in his essay. Not only zero interest in the subject, but also expecting to be entertained by the instructor, and resentful of any challenge to the conventional wisdom. This was particularly true of students who came to college straight out of high school. Students with prior work experience tended to be different. I remember teaching Braverman's concept of deskilling and making an argument that this process was not limited to manual jobs, but white collar jobs were also being affected. I gave them an assignment to find examples of deskilling in their own social environment. Most of my students thought I was a nutcase and had little work experience anyway, so they did not turn in the assignment. But a few of them did - mostly women who both worked and went to college. One of them who worked as a cashier at a supermarket a remarkably thoughtful essay about deskilling in her own workplace.

I soon realized that my Army students were far better learners than the New Joisey fratboys at a supposedly first rate academic institution. I was quickly sacked anyway - there were too many complaints against me from the students who did not like my accent, did not like my political views, and thought that I gave them way too much to read. I got a Johns Hopkins research gig shortly thereafter which morphed into a full time research position so the only teaching that I did afterwards was graduate level courses at a historically Black university in Baltimore. Most of my students there were, in a way, very similar to my Army students. They were city or public sector employees who needed a masters' degree to get a job, did not particularly care about the subject, but understood very well that they need to meet the minimum requirements to pass the class. And they appreciated the fact that I understood that quite well, did not expect them to perform miracles and tried to explain to them any difficulty they had to the best of my ability.

So yes, I am what my wife's new brave teaching manual calls a "mediocre teacher." I do not dislike teaching, in fact, I enjoy teaching people how to think critically and how to solve technical problems. But I really hate motivating people who have no motivation to do anything including learning, and I hate even more entertaining them to be able to keep my job. That is why I am grateful that I do not have to teach in this country where the mantra is that it's teacher's responsibility to teach, motivate and oftentimes entertain the student rather than it is the student's responsibility to learn.


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