“Oh no, I’ve become a human being.”

Infinite Thought on an all-too-familiar experience as a philosophy teacher:

I think that what we think is teaching is not teaching at all but an intricate form of pointless crowd-control for crowds who don’t even need controlling, and that the resentment that students have is the general kind of resentment you get when you think that someone should know better than you but it turns out that they don’t and that they’re just as crap as you are, if not more crap, which is probably likely in the case of philosophy lecturers especially.

The rest of the post is here.

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14 thoughts on ““Oh no, I’ve become a human being.”

  1. Some time back, when anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber was having his troubles at Yale, I emailed him regarding my own doubts about higher education. He told me that as a professor his one job was to transfer the power he held at the start of the class (as the possessor of knowledge) to his students, so that at the end of the class he no longer had power over them. This struck me as remarkablely inspirational, since it indirectly spoke of the manner in which many professors do a very poor job of this. A university or college professor, though they imagine that their aim to transfer knowledge, do all that is in their capacity to maintain their power and authority over their students. They do not understand that their authority strictly consists in the knowledge that they have, and that they must do all that they can to give that power away.

    It seems that Infinite Thought has simply stumbled upon the dark, or at least grey shadow of this truth. If the classroom was seen a bit more like how David Graeber saw his I think this ressentment would turn into a freeing, if banal, honesty. If nothing else, philosophy lectures teacher students how to talk like professors of philosophy, a necessary jargon to enter certain careers. If more, such lectures can become enriching transfers of power (knowledge about how to think about certain things) which at the end result in professors having much less authority over their students than they did before they began.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/

  2. My, I butchered that last paragraph. Correction:

    “If the classroom was seen a bit more like how David Graeber saw his, I think this ressentment would turn into a freeing, if banal, honesty. If nothing else, philosophy lectures teach students how to talk like professors of philosophy, a necessary jargon to enter certain careers. If more, such lectures can become enriching transfers of power (knowledge about how to think about certain things) which result in professors having much less authority over their students than they did before they began.”

    I’m going to look at the video clip, but I have to ask you, What is “risky” about this approach? I mean, I can conceive of this simply being an internal approach, an attitude taken by the professor. What do you foresee being the risk involved (other than the professor no longer holding an inflated sense of their own importance)?

  3. When you consider the actual group dynamics of many classroom situations, sometimes stepping back as a teacher and letting the students do as they will can backfire. Alongside the eager students who are curious to learn, there are others who are lazy, arrogant or resentful; and more important than that, the microstructure of some groups is such that, left entirely to their own devices, they will not only fail to have anything like a productive discussion but will actually create an atmosphere that discourages each other from engaging with the subject in future.

    For example, I have in mind situations where a tiny handful of students dominate discussion, silencing everyone else, or where people become more content to talk about ‘fun’ asides rather than things even tangentially related to the core issues. For some groups, if these sorts of problems arise then they can work it out by themselves, but for others, some judicious exercise of authority is required. For the most part, a balance between an imposed structure and student freedom is the best approach. So, students need to have the power to pursue the issues that real matter to them and not to be treated as repositories of ‘knowledge’ transmitted from an unquestionable authority, but there also needs to be structures in place that act as a check on the complete free play of the students’ power so that an environment can be created in which everyone feels free to participate and that student autonomy does not collapse into mere caprice.

    Nevertheless, I think Levi from Larval Subject is right though when he writes: “My fundamental conviction is that it is categorically impossible for anyone to learn if they do not have a desire to learn.” In fact, his whole teaching philosophy is nothing short of inspiring. He sets it out in this interview: http://www.enewsbuilder.net/cccc/e_article001234678.cfm?x=b11,0,w

  4. Hmmmm. I have not attended a David Graeber classroom, but having read his books, I’m not sure that he is imagining a “let students do what they will” method of teaching (but he is a political anarchist). At least from what I have taken of his description of his own view of what it means for him to be a teacher is that his duty is to empower students, not by giving them free reign over the classroom, but by giving them the knowledge that he has which constitutes his authority over them. It is almost a formal procedure. The knowledge works like a cultural capital (at least this is how I read his comments to me), one which he has a teacher must do everything that he can to “give away”.

    Giving away knowledge (or the power that attends to it) would not involve letting a class run amok, or letting particular students dominate discussion (that, I would think, would be counterproductive to the aims of giving away knowledge).

    As to the “lazy, arrogant or resentful” (who are to be compared to the “curious”), one wonders if something of their negative attitudes are a result of the very power-structures (the Professor as the Subject-supposed-to-know) of the classroom itself, to which they have been often conditioned. By my experience, often intellectually arrogant students are those who have learned “arrogance” as a social form of intellectual discourse (esspecially in philosophy, this attitude works as a guardian over professorial authority it seems). Arrogant professors produce arrogant students. Graduate students in particular seem to have gleaned, before even substantive position holding, the aptitude of “acting” as if one was right. As for laziness, there strikes me something inherently stupifying in acting as a repository for ideas. The same I would think goes for “resentful”.

    Instead of using unquestionable authority to balance out the “free play of student power” I think what needs to happen, insofar as I have digested David Graeber’s point, is to convince students of the POWER of knowing what is being discussed. (An evangelical student may be able to more significantly defend their faith if they at least understand the arguments of the Euthyphro.) If students are involved in the actual transfer of power, if they experience such a transfer AS a transfer, there would seem to be much less heirarchial need for top down control of free wheeling student power.

    I think that much of this is accomplished in the professor her/himself (I make no judgments on Infinite Thought; I am thinking about other professors of my experience). The degree to which a professor is willing to see her or his job as the transfer of that specific power (not any power, but the power of an authority of knowledge), feeling that if they are successful at the end of the class they have “nothing on” their students, at least in the subject that has been taught, (even granting that a student could understand the subject better than they, coming from a different pegagogy), to that degree many of the attitude problem may have evaporated, not to mention the boredom of the professor themselves.

    As for the Larval Subject attitude (I will read the link): “My fundamental conviction is that it is categorically impossible for anyone to learn if they do not have a desire to learn.”I consider it the teacher’s responsibility to instill this desire by having the proper desire to teach, and part of that is maintaining the example for the students that the teacher themselves are still capable of learning, and even learning from her or his students. Professors that are remarkable are very often those that DISPLAY learning through the way that they LISTEN to their students. Perhaps Levi says something about this, I will check it out.

    As for the Husserl, Heidegger link that you suggested, I could find little of Graeber’s point there (was it in the brief discussion of Heidegger’s difficult vocubulary?) I can imagine where one could assemble something like Graeber’s point from some of the things Heidegger says about friendship (not discussed in the video), but not to any force.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/

  5. I’ve read the Levi article, and find it refreshing. Nothing in it contradicts Graeber I believe. Making the world interesting, problematizing it, making it mysterious can even further be enhanced by allowing the student to feel that a REAL transfer of power is occurring. If I am to teach a young person how to ride a bicycle, yes it is one thing to problematize the bicycle, to show them how the bicycle might be an interesting thing to “solve” or “know how to do”, but in no way do I do this by making the child feel that they will never achieve the expertize in bicycle riding that I already have, nor do I make them feel that they need rely upon me in order to ride such a bicycle, once they have learned to do so. The entire point is that I am a surrogate for bicycle-riding know-how. Once they know-how, they ride it for themselves. (Assuming a safe environment.)

    Professors inadvertently, I think, often like to deposit in the minds of their students a kernel of doubt, the doubt that bicycle riding really isn’t theirs. It belongs to the professor who taught them. Young adults feel this, they feel the contest of powers.

    Yes, it is wonderful to show students that what they thought was obvious is much less so than they thought it was, but if one does this as a DISPLAY of power (Look how I can destroy what you thought was so stable), as opposed to a TRANSFER of power (Look what one can do which such things we regularly take to be obvious), some of your brightest, or at least most sensitive students will resist such a display, for they can tell what it is all about.

  6. Dreyfus discusses his experience of teaching, moving from his early experiences of trying to run a kind of ‘tight-ship’ whereby he had a plan that fifteen minutes into the tutorial the students will have learnt such-and-such, by half-past they will have learned the next circumscribed thing, and so on. Letting go of this controlling and structured approach and engaging in a real collaborative inquiry with his students — treating them as genuine partners in learning rather than going through the motions with them — was a revelatory change for him. But, as he says, sometimes it doesn’t work at all, whether that is a function of the expectations of the people involved or not, even if the benefits will on average outweigh the failures. (Perhaps you didn’t hear that bit, I think it is one of the subsequent videos of that interview, where I only linked to the first section. The others are available on the YouTube sidebar.)

    I raised issues about classroom dynamics in the context of IT’s remarks about teaching often being an intricate form of crowd-control. I had in mind a response which sought to radically challenge any classroom authority, even in terms of setting agendas and guiding discussion — one which would see the teacher as to be treated in all respects identical to the student. Perhaps that is something of a straw-man though.

    Of course, the attitude of the teacher is often integral to the attitude which the students develop (the same goes for the institutional struture shaping the way students relate to it). On the whole, it is hard to overemphasise this, but there is some danger of attributing too much to these considerations: students walk in as their own people, with habits, interests, skills and projects, and all these bear upon learning interactions. That said, you are right to say that part of the role of the teacher to instill desire (which I think is part of Levi’s point): after all passion is infectious.

    Perhaps I am a little more sceptical than you about whether it is the purported knowledge of the teacher that is central to their power, as opposed to the social and institutional role that they are afforded. As failed subjects-supposed-to-know, they can engender resentment, but I think the connection between power and knowledge in these situations is rather more diffuse than Graeber’s formulations suggest. I am tempted to think that the relationship runs more in the other direction: at least initially, the expectation of knowledge stems more from other features of their socio-institutional power than the other way around.

    Finally, the idea that teachers are keeping back some hidden kernel of knowledge which undergirds their power seems to me to be a symptom of the very framework of there being a subject-supposed-to-know. So understood, it would be a defence mechanism against the traumatic confrontation with the fact that there is no Master. Graeber’s attempt to demystify the learning process might bring students to this realisation, but not, I think, because it involves a transfer of knowledge-as-power, but instead because it might discourage students from thinking of knowledge as some kind of fetish object.

  7. Interesting comments, I focus on your last two paragraphs:

    Tom: “Perhaps I am a little more sceptical than you about whether it is the purported knowledge of the teacher that is central to their power, as opposed to the social and institutional role that they are afforded.”

    Kevin: This requires some parsing. I mean, the institutional reasoning behind the authority granted is at least purportedly the professor has something to profess (knowledge), and also has the knowledge how to do this professing. In this way the professor displays both a “know that” and a “know how”. It is usually assumed that if anyone else (including her or his students in their future) possessed these knowledges, they too could be granted such a status. In a certain sense the professor is always displaying recommendations for how to pursue power to her or his students.

    Tom: “As failed subjects-supposed-to-know, they can engender resentment, but I think the connection between power and knowledge in these situations is rather more diffuse than Graeber’s formulations suggest.”

    Kevin: I’m not sure that I follow you, but I feel that in particular professors of philosophy as “Subjects-supposed-to-know” (and Lacan of course tells us that subject naturally do not know what they are supposed to know), are particularly fragile in their knowledge (position). Much of their authority is based upon restricting (defeating, or intimidating) questions which undermine their knowledge. Most professors of philosophy fight hard to keep things on script, narrowed to the field of their narrow pegagogy, their “speciality”. Further, unlike say a professor of mathematics, they have a very hard time justifying the relevance of their knowledge, even to their own students. Much time can be spent trying to shore up their own justifiable authority (to themselves, their associates and their students). I don’t believe that the resentment from students stems from the failure of the professor to play a convincing enough Wizard Behind the Curtain, but rather from the composite strategies (all of them rather un-philosophical) to obscure the nature of their power in the first place. That is, to put it shortly, philosophy professors often have a inferiority complex, and it shows. Their failures as Subjects-supposed-to-know are far more problematic to themselves, than to their students. Again though, I’m not sure that I understand your point in the above.

    Tom: “I am tempted to think that the relationship runs more in the other direction: at least initially, the expectation of knowledge stems more from other features of their socio-institutional power than the other way around.”

    Kevin: Yes, I can see that. There are a lot of expectations in a classroom. But the onus is on the possessor of power in the relation. Professors may indeed feel the burden of the expectation of students, just as students are supposed to feel the burden of playing at inquisitive students. But this is a self-critical, self-monitoring situation. Students are not really demanding that professors “know something” so much as demanding to be shown something, there is a difference.

    Tom: “Finally, the idea that teachers are keeping back some hidden kernel of knowledge which undergirds their power seems to me to be a symptom of the very framework of there being a subject-supposed-to-know.”

    Kevin: I agree, but not so much on the terms. It is from my point of view not that they keep back some kernel of knowledge, let us say a nuance of argument that the students are not prepared for, as that they work to create the illusion that there is ALWAYS such a kernel, in the minds of their students, an untransferable “stuff” of authority. This little serves their students, unless it becomes a skill they can approximate as they too become professors (and even then I don’t believe it serves them).

    Tom: “So understood, it would be a defence mechanism against the traumatic confrontation with the fact that there is no Master.”

    Kevin: That would be an analytical way of deciphering this, but I think it is far more simple than that. Insecurity. Not unfathomable, masterless, para-psychotic hurling into the void, rather…they have learned their trade from others who largely have specialized in techniques (and these are very specific techniques) of intellectual intimidation, or disqualification, or question-narrowing and script following. One can put this at the Institutional doorstep if one wants (and there is much to be said on this), but really it is much more human than that. People make decisions when they stop learning, stop opening their eye to others. I don’t think it requires a traumatic confrontation with the fact of there being No-Master to simply want to give to your students the power to act. I should be clear, when I think of the transfer of power, I think not only of the knowledge that is speakable in terms of content, but also any number of means, such as “how to argue”, “how to explain”, “how to listen”, “use of terminology”, “how to refer”, “how to learn” “how to agree” etc. It is a question of charity I think. While I am sure that Institutional facts work against charitableness, in particular in the peer-challenging, speciality-Scholastism of contemporary philosophy (if that is our subject), each classroom turns with the teacher. If you want, “revolution” starts with the teacher.

    Tom: “Graeber’s attempt to demystify the learning process might bring students to this realisation, but not, I think, because it involves a transfer of knowledge-as-power, but instead because it might discourage students from thinking of knowledge as some kind of fetish object.”

    Kevin: As to fetish objects, you may find Graeber’s book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, of interest:
    http://www.amazon.com/Toward-Anthropological-Theory-Value-Dreams/dp/0312240457/ . It deals much with the notion of the fetish object, with strong anthropological grounding.

    I don’t know that I agree that knowledge needs to be treated like a fetish-object for students to be freed (or empowered), though perhaps this is a commitment of yours I cannot dissuade you from. I prefer knowledge to be best seen as a mode of a “capacity to act”. When one has knowledge one can become more active towards oneself and one’s environment. When such an environment is a university or a college, and knowledge becomes restricted to certain academic subjects and academic behavioral techniques, these are not fetishized so much as unique modes of action which a student should be freed up to act in if they wish. One might see that is his a de-mystification, perhaps. For me it is simply engagment. If I as a student know how to write a very good paper on the Euthyphro, despite having barely skimmed through the text, this too is power (knowledge). A professor is teaching technique as well as content.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/

  8. As to the Dreyfus vid, I did watch all 50 minutes and it seemed to deal almost exclusively with Husserl and Heidegger content, with very little self-reference. But I will admit that I played the later segments with the T.V. on as well, as I am no fan of Heidegger about whom I feel too much is made. I listened fairly closely, but I may have tuned out at just the wrong time.

  9. Oops, got the wrong Dreyfus interview; sorry! It was this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CHgt2Szk-I I hope I haven’t subjected you to too much irrelevant Heidegger!

    Just quickly, I didn’t mean to claim that knowledge ought to be treated as a fetish object — quite the reverse. In thinking that there is a subject-supposed-to-know, knowledge gets fetishised as an object with mysterious powers. As with Lacanian analysis, the trick is to manage the realisation that there is no such object and therefore no Master to wield it: done wrongly, this leads to resentment; done correctly, it leads to empowerment — just as the transferential relationship to the analyst plays out.

  10. Tom: “I hope I haven’t subjected you to too much irrelevant Heidegger!”

    Kevin: Forgive me if I consider the last phrase redundant! 🙂

    Tom: “Just quickly, I didn’t mean to claim that knowledge ought to be treated as a fetish object — quite the reverse.”

    Kevin: Now that I re-read your last sentence on Graeber again (I did read it several times before), I see your meaning; but I see no reason to grant a professor a primary role as a psychoanalyst, who frees her or his students through psychotheraputic means. Or why this description would somehow trump a description that is rather fundamental, I do not know, unless it is to grant to Lacan inalienable priorty. Against this I would say, when I teach someone how to do something, like use a screwdriver, or sing a song, or add numbers together, there really is no need for “managing the realization”. You teach someone how to do something, they try to do it, and in succeeding they enjoy the increase in capacity. All the Lacanian mumbo jumbo can be added on later if you want, but teaching people how to do things is a rather elementary human relation. If there is a mystfication of knowledge, it is a mystification that quickly is dispelled if the professor consciously works against it. And what students learn is HOW to do things, a self-redeeming increase in the freedom to act.

    To put it another way,

    One MIGHT say that David Graeber in his classes is empowering his students through some mediating transferential relationship. But even in Lacanian terms this would seem odd since in such therapy the Subject-supposed-to-know uses her/his theraputic position to stimulate the anxiety of the subject’s desire and symptom, something they are supposed to own. By my knowledge is not the case in professor Graeber’s classes (or any other classes).

    Or, one COULD say, David Graeber in his classes is empowering his students by effectively teaching his students how to do things, and working hard not to retard this instruction through any strategies designed to maintain his authority over them.

    Professor Graeber, as far as I know, sees his classroom strategies to be in concert with his political ones, as a non-heirarchial anarchist. If one were to reduce his classroom strategies to those of Lacanian couch techniques, I suppose one would also have to make such a reduction of his political strategies. I fear that this would be stretching the Lacan just a bit too far (if one could admit such a thing).

  11. Empowerment in some kind of psychotherapeutic sense isn’t the point of most teaching — that I agree with — even if sometimes it can be a by-product. I’m more concerned with the impasses to learning. These sorts of problems don’t tend to arise with examples like teaching skills like using a screwdriver, singing a song or counting — there is something very workaday and straightforward about those cases. But something a little strange does tend to happen in academic contexts, even if we think that it ought to be a much more mundane process than it is. I don’t think any such mystification is so easily dispelled, especially in relation to the humanities. It’s one thing to come to an intellectual conclusion regarding what to do as a teacher but quite another when you’re confronted with the complexities and pressures of a room of strangers who project all sorts of expectations upon you in relation to your social role. It is possible to do it successfully, but sometimes it’s no easy thing to move from the ‘crowd-control’ model to something more vital and engaging.

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