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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The dreadfully impoverished mental lives of students...

Today in the 102s, I collected the essay and then embarked on getting them set up for The Left Hand of Darkness. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: I'd present the whole thing as a way of playing "Let's pretend." I asked my students, "How many of you played 'Let's pretend' when you were kids?" Blank looks. "You know, making up something...?" Blank looks, accompanied by shaking of heads: "No, no clue what you're talking about, never did that."

Apparently an entire generation of young people who never made up their own stories: Let's be pirates, let's be a rock band, let's be superheroes ...

I told them that they had lead impoverished childhoods--and I told them that they were going to have a chance to make up for that lack now, by playing "Let's pretend we're in the future, reading the report of a guy who visited another planet." Some of them rather liked the idea. A few promptly fell asleep.

The ones who fell asleep woke back up again, however, when I started saying, "OK, these are people who are hermaphrodites: they have both sets of sex organs." Heads suddenly up: "Did she just say something about 'sex'?" I continued to bend their minds a bit (hermaphrodites, most of the time are completely uninterested in sex in any way shape or form, but periodically go through a "heat" period when either the male or the female organs dominate--but it's a flip of the coin every time...).

To my great satisfaction, I got the question, "But what do they look like?" I told them that I'd asked Le Guin about getting an illustration done of a generic Gethenian, but she nixed the idea. Instead, she suggested that I show my students images of Tibetans, Chileans, Peruvians, Inuits and then ask them, "OK, what do you think Gethenians look like?" And I pulled up the images I culled when I was on sabbatical, not only of people from those cultures but people from those cultures who could easily be either male or female--most very young or very old, but some quite beautiful. They stared at the images, fascinated.

Cool. Now, use your imaginations.

But that rather assumes they have imaginations, and I realize that this may be the biggest stumbling block to their comprehension of the novel: Le Guin provides spectacularly beautiful images--which translate into absolutely nothing in my students' heads. I read several paragraphs, rich in description (and in Le Guin's typically beautiful, supple style) and asked them how they were picturing the scene in their heads.

Using a shorthand I'd not heard until recently but now hear all too often: crickets. (As in, it's so silent, that's all you hear.)

Still, I think they may have a stronger grasp on what they're heading into than usual--not that that means much. Any grasp at all, however tenuous, is more than what I frequently see, and even though I very clearly set them up to expect a bunch of different kinds of "documents" in this report that we're reading, I know for absolute certain that on Monday, most of them will be utterly bewildered by the second and fourth chapters--if not by every single chapter they have to read by Monday.

I don't want to despair. I despair. How can they read a complex and rich work of fiction without having imaginations? This, of course, is why I all too frequently field the question, "Was she on drugs?" They cannot imagine a rational, sane, controlled mind creating something from pure imagination.

And yet I persist in teaching the novel. The Board of Trustees just passed two documents that give all the power in this campus to themselves and allow any and all other bodies--including the college president and his cabinet--merely the ability to "comment." It remains to be seen whether Middle States will respond by summarily yanking our accreditation--as the document so clearly violate any understanding of the word "shared" in "shared governance--or whether the Board will simply be allowed carte blanche, in which case, Paul and I are already trying to envision just how bad things might get: mandates that we have to distribute a certain percentage of good grades, regardless of the quality of work? Never mind a 5-5 load, maybe 6-6? Or shuttering the campus one day, reopening it the next in some other incarnation--but by closing the campus, eliminating tenure, so that we have to all become wage slaves or find some other line of work?

And all that, of course, is assuming that the Trump presidency doesn't simply eliminate any and all forms of federal monies for public education, in which case, what we do here would become utterly moot, even if we could find ways to keep our door open, as god only knows how anyone not already beyond high school or in a private school could be educated.

Grim times. Horrific times. I am more grateful than I can say that Paul, with his moral center and blazing intelligence, is on the front lines of the fight at this campus. I hate what it's doing to him, but I know what he's doing is vital. I know we have other colleagues who also are morally centered and blazingly intelligent, so when Paul steps down, I'm sure we'll still be in good hands--but I know his contributions are invaluable.

So, how to reframe, just today, just right now?

Well, the students in the 102s were coming up with some good stuff, despite their struggles. And I know some of them are going to grab on and really groove on the novel: it always happens.

More good news: Day three of registration, and there are three students signed up for Nature in Lit. I won't celebrate yet: enrollment could stall at any moment. But it feels like a good sign that there are a few in the class already--and that I don't know any of them, so they're signing up for reasons other than the devil they know.

And although the stream of students in Advisement is constant--and they're waiting on average about an hour to be seen--the students I saw today were very happy to have met with me: I received a number of expressions of gratitude, and, in turn, I'm grateful to receive them. It's good to know I'm helping. There were a few times when it took me a while to get myself sorted out so I understood what the student needed, but they were very kind and patient when I got tangled up. Nice.

Finally, although tomorrow is going to be hellish (observation at 8:30 a.m., for fuck's sake: I won't stop bitching about that for a while), next week is a short week. It's sad to admit, but the part that matters most to me about having an extra day off is that I can sleep more. Even if I can't sleep in late, I can nap. That's bliss to contemplate.

Once again, I am steadfastly avoiding marking any student assignments tonight. I can't remember the last time I've gone this many days looking at enormous, steaming--and growing--piles of student assignments and felt, "Nope: doing that later. Kicking that can down the road. I'll get to it eventually." Will it bite me in the ass? Almost certainly. But at the moment, it feels awfully nice to prioritize other things--like getting off campus before 9 p.m., having time to run an errand on the way home, that sort of thing.

And speaking of that sort of thing, I am hosting a subcommittee meeting tomorrow, and I said I'd be a good hostess and provide some sort of beverage and snacky thing, so I'm going to toddle off to the market to see what looks easy and welcoming. Then home. "Dobson! Drive on."


  1. Ages ago (1957?) I read an SF story in which a planet revolves around a 6-star conglomerate "sun" (Alpha Beta Delta Gamma Epsilon Mu -- I think) and at the narrative opening the Suns have begun to set one by one. Objective correlatives abound in the local culture and polity -- a rapid hyperbola of anti intellectual hatred, blood lust, and barbarism triumphant -- rather like the present moment. It rebounds as a Proustian memory as I read today's post, particularly the classroom interchange (sic) on playing "let's pretend." Not merely discouraging are they but close to horrifying -- I'm glad poor Leonard C didn't live to read it though undoubtedly both in Montreal, his old home, and in Oregon, his newer one, one can observe the like classrooms.
    And the rest , alas! From BOT to DT, a trajectory of savagery and threat. I don't drink now because of diabetes but I can still see the attraction. But we push on, boats against the proverbial current. Happy Thanksgiving...B

  2. Sorry:-- Lambda -- last sun.

    For some reason lack of capacity to imagine strikes me, as well, as an impoverishment for our students. Assuming we continue worth at this Vale of Tears, our profession may continue to mean the empowering of "pretend" on the one (small) hand and of "critical thinking" on the other. Meanwhile "there is a glow in the distance and it is not the glow of a Sun." BF