Sunday, September 03, 2006

Books: $$$$; Tuition: $$$$$$; Ego-Trip: Priceless

I wish to begin this post by reminding you all of a scene from the episode entitled Nob & Nobility in the Blackadder the Third series.

Blackadder: Yes, Baldrick, that's the way of the world. The abused always kick downward. I'm annoyed, and so I kick the cat. The cat pounces on the mouse, and the mouse...
Baldrick: (shouts)
Blackadder: ... bites you in the behind.
Baldrick: And what do I do sir ?
Blackadder: Nothing, you are last in God's great chain, Baldrick. Unless there is an earwig around here you want to victimize.

A very funny scene, indeed. And that pretty much *is* the way of the world, isn't it? Well, at the risk of once again playing the Disgruntled Grad Student™, I will say that the academy participates fully in that paradigm. Now, when we hear someone talk of knowing one's place, they are generally either being humble or actively trying to humble another. And that "knowing your place" thing usually means knowing which people are permitted to abuse you with impunity, and which people you may abuse. At least that's what my experience has been. The whole thing is rather distasteful, really, unless Rowan Atkinson does it.

In an unhealthy environment, the victimizer/victimized dichotomy that runs the world seems to make its most obvious, and humorous, appearance in those who have just climbed up a rung in the Great Chain. In the academic world, it goes something like this: Post-docs show disdain for ABDs, ABD's show disdain for first-year PhD students, first-year PhD students show disdain for MA students, and everybody shows disdain for undergrads. High school students and teachers have the questionable peace that comes with being beneath contempt and largely absent from the university setting. As a licensed and experienced secondary school teacher who is now in graduate school, I am a freak who may as well be walking around with a scarlet 'T' on her chest. The assumption is that I must not really be a Scholar, because I'm one of those awful Teacher-types. I knew that prejudice existed going in to grad school, and I accepted that I would have to work harder to prove myself than others in my cohort would have to work. Spite is really a fantastic motivator for me, so the underdog role is one I accepted gleefully. This is not a teacher-scholar planctus, that much I can promise those of you who've managed to read this far.

Microburg is an unhealthy environment, and the dysfunction is the top-down sort. Meaning that those who should now be above proving themselves as victimizer to avoid being classified as victimized are still at it. And despite interventions from the Dean, their ugliness is spreading. I will spare you the long and sordid tale of last year's faculty war, except to say that what started as a minor disagreement erupted into an ego-driven demonstration of "power over" (as distinguished from "power to") among the faculty. Despite the attempts of some professors to maintain decorum in their interactions with students, some shrapnel did manage to fly our way. Hell, some was aimed directly at us as a way to hurt enemy professors who like us without the inconvenience of picking on someone one's own size. When the princes are at war, the peasants suffer. Lots of fun for grad students, as you can imagine. It was frightening, embarrassing, and the greatest example of mock-epic I've ever seen. It also left room for some really grotesque examples of ways to inhabit the role of instructor to come to graduate students from our supervising faculty.

We interrupt this diatribe to bring you a word from our sponsor.

Should there be someone reading this post for examples to use in denigrating the academic community as a whole, or grad students as a sub-group of academics, you may want to find another blog. You see, I spent many years as a pink and/or blue collar worker, and I can tell you that the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant in this country makes it damned difficult for academics to do our jobs well. Yes, I know that everyone is abused to some extent at work, but I also know that even those suffering from mental illnesses are kinder to their care-givers than some students are to their instructors. That's with the excuse of being clinically insane. So don't come here with your "real world" stories, expecting to silence or humble me. It won't work.

And, now, back to our regularly scheduled rant.

Even the most well-respected of the grad students I know don't ascend to what would be Blackadder status from the example above. On good days, the best a grad student can hope for is to be the cat. More often, we're Baldrick. This is the way of the world. While we gripe about it, none of us have grabbed a professor by the lapels and shouted, "Look, did your parents raise you at all, or just throw meat in your cage periodically?" Even though some of the more hot-headed among us might have been REALLY TEMPTED to do just that, we didn't. Let's say these hypothetical temptations happened an average of twice a week. That's twice a week for 28 weeks that we managed to control our inner bitches (I include men in the term 'bitches,' because I believe in equality of unsavory character traits). That's a lot of repressed bitchitude, and it has to come out somewhere. I like to blog it out. Lucky you.

This past week, while in conversations with my peers, I discovered their chosen direction for the release of all that aggression. The legion of Baldricks has discovered that undergrads make fine earwigs. Now, in addition to my real-world cred, I've been an undergrad more than once, a public school teacher, and a graduate instructor. I know that there are students in Microburg and all around the world who think that the letter B doesn't apply to them, regardless of their effort or skill. I know that some students will try to get the department chair to override grades that came 'from some idiot grad student' who hasn't been informed that said student's father is an attorney. I know all about the fine tradition of trying to intimidate a grad student, because they aren't real professors and therefore have no power. I get the frustration that comes when one tries to create a progressive, student-centered learning environment and runs smack up against 1) behavior that should have been trained out of the average ten year-old, and 2)just staggering entitlement issues. I have respect for my fellow grad students, and the struggles they face, because I face them, too.

To sum up the post so far: Professors in open warfare - bad. Post-adolescents - not necessarily innocent cherubs. Grad students - often stuck between two generations of insufferable spoiled brats in mid-tantrum.

Yet I cannot support my colleagues when they tell me that they have practiced stinging barbs to release against those awful things known as students, should the need arise. I know they are recreating the teaching personas their mentors showed them last year. However, I do think that learning the difference between a positive and a negative example should probably be the first skill future teachers are required to master. I am many years older than most of my peers, and so have had some time to develop coping mechanisms that don't involve kicking downward. But, I was also very lucky in my early mentors. Education can be a very humbling experience, and unearned reverence felt like just the salve my broken and battered self-image needed when I first started teaching. I was willing to be intoxicated by the "wow, she knows everything" looks on students' faces. Luckily for me, there were folks around to snap me out of it. When I was packed and ready for my ego-trip to Superiorville, my mentors, people who knew much more than I, sat me down for a rather brusque, one-way 'conversation.'

I pass their advice on to anybody who cares to read it now:

Of course you know more than your students. Why the !@#$%^& would anyone hire you if you didn't? That doesn't make you special, it makes you useful. Get over yourself. A good teacher doesn't focus on how much s/he knows, but rather how much s/he can bring out of her/his students. A student leaves a bad teacher's classroom thinking "Wow, s/he sure is smart," but when that student leaves a good teacher's classroom, the thought is "Wow, I sure am smart to be able to figure all that out." Do you want to be a bad but delusional teacher, or a good one?

Very good advice, that. Every time I'm tempted to think of myself as 'a real scholar,' with all the concomitant nonsense that position seems to bring, I remember it.

The questions I asked my fellow students to consider while they were bragging about learning how to be just as unprofessional and nightmarish as our professors were last year were these: Do you consider intelligence a tool or a weapon? Think of your favorite people, what do you think their answers would be? Now think of your favorite instructor, what would his/her answer be?

So, basically, I've been an insufferable killjoy this week, and not just on my blog.


Bardiac said...

Wow, I wish we could make some of my colleagues and former grad school cohort read this!

It's a good reminder, especially for those of us who try to be decent, that the point isn't to prove how smart WE are in the classroom.


Ancrene Wiseass said...

Grad students - often stuck between two generations of insufferable spoiled brats in mid-tantrum.

Yes. Yes yes yes.