Monday, May 22, 2006

Managing the cool kids

I am teaching a spring course right now, before I return to Home City for the summer of unemployment. This particular course is giving me plenty of opportunity to watch class dynamics in action, and to try (usually unsuccessfully) to intervene. It seems that as my politically charged (inter-)discipline has developed, it has been cursed with cliques. Small compacts of 21-year-olds - one such compact per university - each of whom is lovely and smart on her own, for the most part (especially when they are divested of the clique - speaking with their guards down in my office, for instance). But who are much, much too big for their britches, intellectually and socially, and end up policing classroom discourse with a doctrinaire attitude that is notably lacking in depth.

One of the things that makes me laugh about their attitudes is their recent, provisional and, dare I say, convenient, embrace of all things "postmodern". Now, I'm pretty unavoidably postmodern in my own theoretical orientation but I am, at least, aware of the pitfalls of the pomo, and can trace the electrically charged fault lines that have been left in my own field by two decades of impassioned argument about the effects of this beast. These kids, though - I watch them grab hold of a few ideas they have identified as "postmodern" and use them to excuse themselves from consequences, essentially. This in a field in which we are profoundly beset by consequences - in fact, are consequences not our MO? It makes me think, cringing, of diary entries I wrote 10 years ago, as my first long-term relationship collapsed when I left my girlfriend to start sleeping with a boy. I treated her badly (not the sleeping with a boy, per se, just the deets of the whole thing - the shameful way I behaved) and justified it, in my journal, in terms of the pomo theory I was then heady with encountering as an upper-year undergrad! What's worse, I now recall that I had the nerve to put such thoughts into a singularly remorseless letter to her. I shudder to think. What distresses me about such noxious uses of this theory is that the best of various "post" theories was conceived out of concern for the consequences of individualist refusals of responsibility, right? Using it this way violates that spirit.

Anyway, these kids, they're doing it too. At least in my classrooms, my colleagues' classrooms, and in the general culture of the university, such as it is at a place like this. And the problem is, they're not doing it in their diaries, but proudly and publicly and unthinkingly.

This is a problem. Especially at a small university like the one I've been at this year, where the pond is too small for these wannabe big fish, who end up in the same classes together all the time, and terrorize the same few dozen fellow students with their shtick. I've had several bewildered non-clique majors come to my office to tell me how difficult they find it to speak up in class with this kind of thing going on. In fact, as a colleague - let's call her Faux Girlfriend, which is how my actual GF, who lives in Home City, jokingly refers to her - as Faux GF noted, I seem to have become a bit of a mentor for precisely these students who feel excluded by the whole dynamic. This makes me happy. After all, it is these quieter, less confident ones who need my "help" (although I suppose one could argue that the pomo vixens could also use some help getting over themselves).

Still, though, I need help! I haven't been particularly successful in shutting down this dynamic when it really comes to dominate. Probably because I am naturally an introvert, and I myself almost never opened my mouth as a student. (Teaching has been a steep learning curve of the spirit, in that it has meant overcoming that past, and I'm not all the way there.) I mean, they sometimes intimidate me, which is pathetic. (I am heartened that Faux GF expresses similar sentiments.) And the university where I've accepted a job for next year is going to be full of such folks - though they're probably a little more astute, and there will be more of them. I need to conjure up a strategy for dealing with this nonsense. Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

(Since no one knows of the existence of this blog, I'm not sure who I'm asking for help...:)

No comments: