What Students Want/What Students Need (Intellectual Equality Against Critical Theory) (Part II)


Apparently it’s not just Syracuse undergraduates who want to talk or read about “spirituality,” “technology,” and “the Holocaust.” Yesterday’s post about my students at SU brought the second highest number of all-time visits for a single day at JPP. I will, of course, grant that this may have something to do with the fact that I linked this post on several list-serves. I received feedback from three responders, including colleagues who tend not to agree about anything but who both agreed in the strongest possible terms that it’s not our job to provide students what “they want.” Our job is to teach them what they “need” to know.

But if the kids don’t show up, then who has been taught what?

I think a little “intellectual equality” is in order here. I think the better wisdom not to regard as imbeciles the people whom we as educators seek to educate, in this case, our students. This means trying to respond to what our student interlocutors say to us from the point or places at which they stand and from which we stand, without any abdication of our responsibility to “the truth” as we see or claim to know it. About “intellectual equality” between persons, I’d point to Jacques Rancière. I posted about him a couple of days ago. And now again.

The view rejected by Rancière is the view that “What the pupil must learn is what the schoolmaster must teach her. What the spectator must see is what the director makes her see.” Instead, this is the meaning of “the ignorant schoolmaster: from the schoolmaster the pupil leans something that the schoolmaster does not know himself.” Rancière goes on to refer to avant-garde or political artists who claim to “simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an  energy of action. But they always assume that what will be perceived, felt, understood is what they have put into their dramatic art or performance” (p.14).

Sounds familiar, yes? The problem, of course, is that it never really works out this way; nor should it.

Watch out for critical theory theorists overinvested in notions of ideology critique and false consciousness. About treating people like idiots, Rancière has us consider, “Forty years ago, critical science made us laugh at the imbeciles who took images for realities and let themselves be seduced by their hidden messages. In the interim, the ‘imbeciles’ have been educated in the art of recognizing the reality behind appearances and the messages concealed in images.  And now,, naturally enough, recycled critical science makes us smile at the imbeciles who still ting such things as concealed messages in images and a reality distinct from appearances exist” (p.48)

Rancière’s own approach is to assume “that the incapable are capable, that there is no hidden secret of the machine that keep them trapped in their place. It would be assumed that there is no fatal mechanism transforming reality into image; no monstrous beast absorbing all desires and energies into its belly; no lost community to be restored…It means that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification…I believe that today there is more to be sought and found in the investigation of this power than in the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast” (pp.48-9).

I’m not going to assume that our students don’t know what they need. Who cares, for now, if they don’t know how to place an apostrophe. That’s easy enough to learn. Treating people like idiots is not, in general, the best way to understand people or to do things. In fact, that nasty habit might be much harder for academics to unlearn that is for an undergraduate to learn how write a term paper. I’m going to assume that they are plenty capable, even more so than me, the ignorant schoolmaster.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to What Students Want/What Students Need (Intellectual Equality Against Critical Theory) (Part II)

  1. Gail says:

    This from the graduate advisor who uses Independent Studies to make sure “students get the bibliographies they need” and who tells the students in what those bibliographies should consist?

    Of course I’m being caustic. I do heartily approve of changing the name of our department to something like “Faith, Meaning, and Spirituality” and changing course titles to reflect the new name. But I also approved of that part of your first post where you suggested that we go ahead and teach what we’ve always taught…just under new semiotic management. To do this does not treat students as idiots. In fact, I think that to assume that students come in to an elite university and “know what they need” equalizes my relation to them *only* along the dominant but damaging axis of consumer capitalism. It allows my relation to students to be dictated by the logic of capitalist exchange: e.g., “What do you want? Don’t worry: My class will deliver it to you in less than 3 minutes or you get an automatic ‘A’ on your first quiz.” I submit that I’ve been in the field quite a while, I think I know how to teach it better than they do. The students and I are not equal as regards knowledge of the field and it is not professional for me to cater to their whims about content.

    The students and I are equals, however, as regards other more important axes, such as curiosity, investment in learning, and the ability to muster life and labor experiences to interpret historical, cultural, and political texts (including visual and aural texts). We are equal before the law and in the voting booth. We are equal (I believe) before God. In light of these more important relational equalities, I do ardently try to give students what they need and what they want. These more important horizons of equality shape class conversations, negotiating test dates and formats, how often I meet with them outside of class. Education is not a top-down thing for me; I learn constantly from my students (though I don’t know how much they know that I learn from them). Likewise, I assume that what they learn from me likely has a relatively oblique relationship to the “objectives” I dutifully post on my syllabus. I truly hope they learn something from me that I don’t know myself. That’s a lovely way of putting the collaborative and rhizomatic nature of pedagogy!

    I do poll students about the texts I assign. But I don’t let their desires dictate all of my syllabus decisions, not only because I’m paid to use my deeper and longer training for their benefit, but also because as a parent and as a scholar I know that what a person wants and needs is not always pleasant, easy, or initially accepted as right and good for her or him. But I offer this “what a person want and needs” not as a power play or condescension, but rather as a frame for conversation, as an intensity for the actualization of thought, or (and) as a map that the students and I, together, have to label and shade in.

    • zjb says:

      hi Gail!! never, never would i ever say or think of saying that student interest or demand should “dictate” what or how we teach or the standards of excellence we can reasonably expect of any given body of students. nor would i ever consent to reformating the Study of Religion as the Department of Spiritual Studies. my point is more simple. there are dialogical-conversational and envrionmental components to education, and i think it’s a big mistake when scholars react to that environment with hostility and contempt. it doesn’t matter what we are doing if it’s just whistling in the wind. that’s precisely what i like about Ranciere, the fact that he doesn’t react like this, unlike other theorists, who i could name but whom i won’t, who do. about the general principle, i think we always-agree-sort-of-except-when-we-don’t. unlike you, i actually enjoy a little bit of what others might call “slumming.” and frankly, i think the nexus of God-Apocalypse-Afterlife-Technology-Bioethics-Holocaust is a very interesting one . it’s not a nexus that i would have or could have put together on my own, but to me it makes a lot of sense for a program in Jewish Studies, which is a discipline, if you haven’t noticed, that tends to get hobbled by historicism.

  2. z – This is a great thread. One thing about being in touch with what students know can also be thought of as a kind of pre-test. Not the “who was Kafka?” kind, but if students are talking about ideas that sound like Kafka, or whomever, and you can show them that this guy also had those ideas – or sorta like those ideas – and here they are, then students really see that you are listening. I also like doing that because it shows them that history is important. What is happening today does relate, is sometimes similar, has been influenced by what happened.

    I was just rereading Panofksy (art history). He has a critical method that read a lot like biblical exegesis to me. So what did I find? That he and his generation in Germany were schooled in hermeneutical practices. That may be commonplace to some, but not to me. So yes, there is a thread leading all the way back to biblical text study.

    • zjb says:

      neat! another wayward meeting of modern religion, modern art, and now modern art history. Panofsky reads like biblical exegesis because Panofsky was schooled in hermeneutucs, and because hermeneutics starts off in Germany with Schleiermacher, a romantic theologian.

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