Tit For Tat

batFor a long time I’ve been debating whether to write a post in which I complain about colleagues who complain that their students write outrageous things in their class assignments.

But writing such a post comes with risks.

I imagine that if I wrote such a post its punchline would have something to do with the practical effect of these complaints, i.e., how commiserating colleagues are performing for each other their sense of a shared identity as credible scholars by (i) identifying, (ii) bemoaning and (iii) thereby effectively distancing themselves from what they agreed to be their students’ sadly misinformed statements — you know, the sort that not only provide (sometimes humorously, I admit, but there’s an edge to our laughter, no?) mistaken information but which also generalize in particularly grandiose, and thus especially egregious, ways.

The four pillows of Islam are…

or

Since before the beginning of time, man has always….

While we all need to vent, of course, it always strikes me as odd to hear teachers complain about their students’ shortcomings, for it’s a teacher’s job to move students from where they happen to be to a new place — to where they know something that they once did not. (After all, students who don’t make mistakes also don’t need teachers — think about it.) Not every student starts in the same place, to be sure, and they certainly don’t all end in the same place either. And American higher ed being what it is, we all teach in a broad range of schools, with an equally broad range of students who all have widely varying capabilities and, more importantly, maybe, equally varying levels of support and preparation for our classes. So complaining about where some of them happen to be when they find their way into our classes, or what they didn’t learn when they left them, can be read as shaming students behind their backs, making the practice a bit of an indictment of the one doing the complaining.

But, like I said, writing a post like that is risky, since I’m a member of the group which also happens to include some who engage in just that sort of complaining — I might risk my own standing by venting in that way,

So let me start over.

What if we instead hear the complaint as not being about the student but, rather, as how some publicly reproduce their status as “not student” — i.e., how we demonstrate to each other our estranged position from “them” and thus establish our shared affinity with other “not students”? Then it isn’t all that odd to hear teachers complaining, for now we can understand the shared complaints as being among the ways that we transform ourselves from students into colleagues.

So it’s not about them; it’s about using them to invent us. (Thank you, Edward Said.)

A recent email that I received from a person invited to contribute to a volume that I’m now co-editing comes to mind, in which scholars have been invited to respond briefly to questions a non-specialist reader might pose about religion. (In fact, as I told people in the invitation, the vast majority of the questions came straight from 100-level students in my own Department, on their first day of class this semester — cue some people’s stereotyped assumptions about the state of Alabama….) Complaining about one question’s wording, a person invited to contribute replied something like:

Whoever wrote this question knows very little about the topic….

My response?

You’re right, the person who wrote that question knows very little about this topic since they are an undergrad who could use someone like you to answer it. So can I put you down for that one…?

Needless to say, this person didn’t sign on as a contributor. But, in reply, they did see fit to bring to my attention my email’s improper use of the plural pronoun “they” with the singular “undergrad” — an error I just reproduced in an effort to disguise the identity (aka gender) of the complainant.

The exchange comprised an interesting series of tits for tats, all involving status and distinction — not unlike two kids consecutively working their grip up the baseball bat to see who gets to hit first.

tittatLuckily, a person whom I consider to be far higher in the scholarly pecking order not only took up the challenge of that particular question (the moment I grabbed the very top of the bat, perhaps?) but did so with no qualms about its wording, content to play the ball where it lies — the sign of a pretty good teacher, I’d suggest. And perhaps it’s also the sign of well-seasoned teachers — those not bothered by the stumbles of a novice since they’re likely not worried all that much about setting themselves apart (for they’re probably surrounded by all sorts of other evidence that they’re already at a different stage of the game).

So like I said, I was thinking of writing such a post, but then it occurred to me that complaining in this way would do little more than mark me as a person in the midst of his own professional transitions, one who was trying to firm-up (in my own mind as much as others, probably) his own status, in distinction from those no less embedded in self-beneficial distinctions of their own.

For what I said of them would bounce back and land on me.

But that’s just how social formation works, I guess: there’s always someone trying to establish themselves by spanking you for using the wrong pronoun.

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