I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.
In Rancière’s exposition of Jacotot’s revolutionary educational method, it seems we can isolate the two factors that are absolutely required for a teacher: a willingness to keep the student on task and a bullshit detector. Actual knowledge of the subject one is teaching is helpful insofar as one will have a better bullshit detector, but at the end of the day, Rancière seems content that simple common sense will serve well enough to start. I found this argument pretty invigorating when I first read it and still do — but Lacan’s notion of the “university discourse” complicated matters for me. Lacan claims that while knowledge is apparently in the driver’s seat, the real truth of the university discourse is the imperious command to know, a command that drives the students’ endless production. In other words, at the end of the day the university discourse comes down to “Think, pig!”
This demand is insatiable. As with the superego, it’s our very best students who are most punished by it, who get the greatest demands piled upon them more and more. We always detect some vague “potential” in them, the ability to know more, do more, think more, write more. I’ve even been tempted in the past to grade a better student on a different scale, where an A would represent meeting my expectations (and I suspect that I’ve been subjected to that treatment at times in my educational career) — but I’ve also always held back, because those very students are the ones most afflicted with anxiety in my experience (and often women as well, which would take a whole other post).
My students may find me to be a hard grader now, but for me, the standard for an A is basically “what can reasonably be expected at this level of coursework” — in the first-year courses, that means a paper that demonstrates a good understanding of the material, that is free of distracting mechanical errors, and has a clear point and organization. Those standards are difficult for some students due to inadequate preparation, but I think they are achievable, especially given the format of Shimer’s first-year writing intensive courses. Requiring some sense of genuine creativity (as judged by me) seems excessive, although I do sometimes let that kind of creativity make up for other kinds of deficiencies in a paper. Given the punitive financial and career consequences attached to grades in the contemporary setting, it would be unforgivable in my view to pile additional demands on a student who is already meeting expectations.
These concerns become even more pronounced when one reflects that our students are most often engaged in another form of “production” while they’re in school. One would think that in a time of elevated unemployment and amid constant claims that our national future hinges on increasing access to higher education, our society would figure out some way that school could be students’ full-time job — but no, it’s absolutely crucial that during this period of intense learning that they will get only once in a lifetime, students must be wasting their days making coffee or whatever. The very fact that I can describe being a student as a “job” in itself is revealing, though, isn’t it? I wonder if this is how it feels for a boss whose workers have a side-job — surely they must be aggrieved when their workers show up sleep-deprived or don’t have the flexibility to take on any extra projects that pop into their mind!
For me the trump card has always been that the economy out there is sordid and meaningless, whereas I’m doing something meaningful, something of inherent worth. I wonder, though, if the content is enough to make up for the similarity of form — if my call for greater nuance in their understanding of Locke is fundamentally different from the customer who wanted soy in their [I don't have the energy or frankly the knowledge to come up with a detailed fancy coffee order], if my decision to have a paper due on the same day as a long reading is really a long distance from abruptly giving a worker an extra shift and assuming they’ll “make it work.”
I suppose all I can do is try to mitigate those types of demands, which is something that I’m already doing and that I’m planning to work with my colleagues to coordinate on more (for instance, we’re a small enough school that we can easily confer and make sure that all our major assignments aren’t converging on the same due date). As for the larger question, though, I’m not sure whether there’s anything to be done — I’m in the university discourse whether I want to be or not, and often the disclaiming of that authority can only lead to more exaggerated or even inappropriate demands (like that students should feel that they’re your friend).
More than that, I still believe that there is a utopian dimension to the student’s life that should be treasured and cultivated — the joy of the flash of understanding, the pride and satisfaction of the creative interpretation or the difficult argument well-made. Perhaps the only way to preserve that utopian dimension is to keep it separate from the imperious demand, for instance, to treat the student who far exceeds expectations with a creative paper as an intellectual colleague rather than an intellectual employee. And in turn, perhaps the only way to keep the imperious demand at bay is to give it clear boundaries, to say, in effect, “Here is the grading regime, and it’s my responsibility to hold you to it — but I hope something else will happen, too, something that will let us suspend or at least set aside our student-schoolmaster relationship and meet as thinkers on equal terms.” Ideally, the grading regime would help to clear some kind of space for that other thing, but it strikes me that perhaps one must have a certain pessimism in that regard to keep things within their bounds.