Despite its exceptionally low-pay relative to qualifications, teaching isn’t that bad as far as jobs go: for the most part, I can choose the courses I want to teach, I can choose the topics I want to cover, I can choose the readings and assignments, and I can choose how to conduct the classroom. Few other jobs–with the exception, perhaps, of “rich person who doesn’t work”–offers this degree of occupational freedom. I like teaching in a university, but I wouldn’t, for instance, like teaching in a high school where the curriculum is more or less mandated by the provincial Ministry of Education.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks. More often than not, students are unengaged in the material, even when it is really great material. They are much more interested in marks than in thought and discussion. Some are even absolutely unprepared to write a sentence. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, there are usually at least a few students who are genuinely interested in learning and the material.
However, every so often you get sarahgrunfelded: a student who either wasn’t paying attention or just didn’t understand the point raises really questionable objections and demands an immediate and unconditional apology. I was sarahgrunfelded last week by a student who insisted that I had absolutely no right to discuss marital rape in a classroom because it might “offend someone” and, worse, that my illustration of Max Weber’s concept of charismatic domination with the example of Jesus opened up Christians to mockery and abuse.
This wasn’t the first time I was sarahgrunfelded. A few years ago–incidentally, in the same class–a student complained to my Chair because I used the word “fuck” once or twice in lecture. Admittedly, most professors do not swear during class–which is their decision and right–but I don’t see how language could possibly be construed as reasonable grounds for a complaint. Fortunately, my Chair agreed with me and we found a solution to the problem: the student was granted registration into a class which was already full; incidentally, the class the student actually wanted to take.
What was interesting about the most recent sarahgrunfelding was that the student didn’t object (at least as far as I could tell) on the basis of facts: the student didn’t attempt to deny that Jesus wasn’t an example of charismatic domination nor did the student attempt to deny that in 1982 in Canada there was no crime called “marital rape” but in 1983 there was. Both of those would have been reasonable objections: “You got the facts wrong” or “You misinterpreted the facts” or “The example doesn’t fit the concept.” All of those would have been reasonable.
What the student did object to was that “someone” who was never specified and who the student never claimed to be “might” be “offended” by the use of marital rape as an example to illustrate the connection between law and violence in positivist theories of the law. Likewise, the student objected that some Christians might be mocked because it is possible to analyze the structure of Jesus’s authority without recourse to his divinity thus making them look silly; that is, that non-Christians can discuss Christianity or that Christians can be critical about their faith.
Both objections aren’t just wrong, but they undermine the basis of the university classroom entirely. On the one hand, professors have to live in fear of being sarahgrunfelded for giving what are obviously textbook and routine examples. Fortunately this sarahgrunfelding didn’t lead to my picture being put in the paper. On the other hand, the classroom presupposes that anything and everything is open to questioning: this includes religion, this includes morality, this includes the law and politics, this includes the legitimacy of our communities and our state. There is nothing that should not be open to questioning and, therefore, discussion in the classroom. Any attempt to foreclose discussion and thought must be resisted and rejected. It is one thing when political controls on the classroom emanate from politicians and frauds like David Horowitz; it’s another thing entirely when it emanates from our students. This is deeply troubling and puzzling and those of us in the “business” of education must strongly resist these demands.
(Postscript: in an effort to address the student’s concerns, I wrote an exceptionally long and detailed email; the student hasn’t bothered to reply, but has dropped the course.)