Careful what you ask for!

I asked my students today about the relationship(s) among appearance, identity, and authority – specifically mine. It’s part of the ongoing pedagogy project I’ve been working on with Leda about the visibility/invisibility of our actual bodies in the classroom. By the end of the discussion several students were telling me how I should have taught (!) the class all along: roughly more form-based than content-based.

Partly, there is some frustration with the challenge of the task itself. Building “a public sphere” within which to discuss things that matter is difficult work. Moreso, perhaps, in a culture and with a population that valorizes entertainment? Looking at the broad strokes of topics and, more specifically, the arguments being made about them, there’s a definite pattern of advocating for ways to compensate for the stress of daily life. The strategies proposed range from overt advocacy of various forms of entertainment to philosophical outlooks that can prevent (or at least blunt) the severity of stress.
I think it is the relational aspect of the public sphere that seems to be the main source of contention? Having to conform to one’s audience and/or situate one’s topic in relation to other topics or conceerns was accused of being a constraint, a limitation, an inhibition to creativity. The first two points are absolutely correct: “publics” have boundaries and one must learn to ‘read’ and ‘negotiate’ them in order to be effective – that is, in order to be persuasive. The last point, about creativity, is optional. Art is always produced within social and historical circumstances. The best art uses the social and historical to make its point.
Another candidate for being “a problem” is what’s appropriate and inappropriate to discuss. The broad version of this perceived problem was the size and scope of a public sphere. “Shouldn’t it be anyone and everyone, not just us?” In theory (meaning, “in a perfect world”, as an ideal) – yes, of course! But in practice, not everyone is listening, and fewer still are actually contributing (even though the breadth and depth of media is overwhelming). Hmmm, maybe there are as many contributing, but in a monologic way? “This is what I have to say and you can take from it what you will?” There’s a pragmatic element there, indeed people will filter and select according to their own inclinations, however effective public speech anticipates and overcomes such serendipity. I’m thinking this relates back to “listening” but it doesn’t seem right: I don’t have evidence for a lack of listening to each other as much as struggle with identifying links (connections and disconnections) among the arguments presented and performed in the actual speeches.
A specific question of “appropriateness” involved my telling a story in which my identity as a lesbian was overt. This was described as sharing my “personal life”. Students had varying reactions, including accusing me of making too big a deal out of it (especially, I think, via on-going discussion) to being something one doesn’t share with strangers. There was a reference to “that moment when we all knew it”. “I was like, oh wow, forget the story she just said she’s a lesbian!” One student said his reaction was, “Things are getting serious now.” and several said it was the most meaningful part of the story, that it was in fact more important than the story because I was sharing part of my self with them.
My coming out was contrasted with a student’s coming out … hers (in the moment) didn’t look that different than mine (to me), but other students appeared to evaluate her more ‘positively’ than me, although at least one person applied the same criteria of “not knowing each other”. It begs the question, how does one “come to know” another, and when? Who decides when the time is right? There was tentative discussion of a possible relationship between identity and authority, and candor about never having had a teacher before who was open about their sexual orientation.
I’m not sure what to make, yet, of the Appearance:Identity equation. There’s clearly a reluctance to stereotype, but the question about why it was an issue for me to say it when everyone (?) suspected already (or knew, as some admitted) is puzzling. Why is what is commonly known prohibited from discourse? There seems to be an undervaluing of identity (or perceptions thereof?) Does this correlate in any way with perceptions of authority?
This area is also a puzzle. Some students assumed class would be easy based on my “laidback” style and the effort put into having everyone get to know each other, at least by name. Others assumed it would be “fun,” or “different.” Some recalled that they themselves had selected the order of their assignments, that I’d provided choices instead of being directive. There was also recognition that the conversation we had in class today had been made possible by the cultivation of a comfortable, laidback atmosphere, and that I was just trying to push them to improve.
Is their pushing back only a reflection of the difficulty of the task or is it specific to the way I have performed the role of teacher? Both? The first thing that occurred when I left them alone in the room today (under video surveillance 🙂 a digital camcorder taping only those who had signed informed consent forms) was a mini-breakdance performance by a student. Literally! “We’ve got a circle and a floor…” And so she did. Definitely a tension-breaker for the group; was it also a diss of my authority? A sign of disrespect? It looked/felt that way when I initially saw it, but I don’t actually think so. Most of the students did move on to discuss the questions at hand – validating my trust and enlarging our public sphere.
Did they only have this conversation because of my authority? Obviously I structured the possibility through my power as the teacher. Did they have to engage? I don’t think so. Did they think they had to? Perhaps. Were the specific criticisms of the class/my teaching a reaction against doing things they didn’t want to do? Or resistance to doing these things ‘under my watch’, so to speak? There were two specific criticisms in addition to general chafing against the criteria of effectiveness and constitution of a public sphere. One had to do with how highly I rated the effectiveness of the speech on Facebook, and the other had to do with a characterization I made of a speech about experiencing life. The latter criticism, that I reduced the thesis to only one of the supporting claims is interesting, especially given the student’s clarifying summary of his main point, which he says he repeated four times. Yet, what is memorable from his speech was his closing statement: “The world is a fucked up place, maybe once-in-awhile we should be fucked up too” (from memory). Since marijuana (according to memory) was the main substance mentioned (alcohol was given a nod in comparison), it seemed logical to me that the intent of the speech was more about marijuana use despite being couched among other examples. What other of the examples given might “fuck” a person “up”? Perhaps the power of his conclusion undermined the broader aim of his thesis?
His point that people will interpret how they will, however, is well taken. Determining effect on the audience is tricky – more guesswork than hard science. This is also the point of the other specific criticism, that I had overrated the effect of the Facebook speech. Students wanted to know if I was basing my judgment on my own connection with Facebook. No. (I didn’t even know about it until it was the subject of this speech). I judged based on the reaction of students (the audience), about half of whom are users. I was corrected, however, that the engagement of the class was NOT about effect as much as it was about “the fact” that so many are users.
Some are not, and don’t care about it. Does the lack of personal exposure preclude taking something of value from the speech? For instance, something regarding online privacy and/or physical safety? The presence of this link to larger, widespread concerns that do in fact affect nearly everyone (even if you don’t own your own computer, many records concerning you are kept on computers with varying degrees of security) is another reason that speech was rated so highly. It was persuasive (had effect) and included all the elements of thesis, claims, and evidence.
At any rate, as the students said, I “got good stuff” on the video and I appreciate the risks everyone took to say what was on your mind. 🙂 Now, on to strengthening our public sphere. We’ve only got a month left!

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