Saturday, April 16, 2011

I knew I was done when....

My career as a college professor ended in 1997 after about 16 years in classrooms at four universities. I was rooting around on the web earlier today and something someone posted on some forum for some reason (it's amazing how these things work) suddenly triggered a memory of the classroom I was in the moment I knew I wasn't going to make it in that profession.

It was in February of 1992. I can't remember the class other than it was an upper level undergraduate class full of Communication Studies majors. At some point a discussion started about the conviction of boxer, Mike Tyson, on rape charges. The crime had taken place at a downtown Indianapolis hotel; the trial had just concluded a day or two before at the downtown Indianapolis courthouse, and both of those places were about a mile or less from the classroom.

The discussion among white and black students and male and female students plunged into questions of race and justice and sex and celebrity and was moving along quite nicely until one student offered this explanation:

They had to find Mike Tyson guilty because William Kennedy Smith had just been acquitted (about a month earlier) in another highly publicized rape trial.

There was a pause, and then - and this was the moment for me - every single student agreed with him.

And I remember suddenly feeling a wave of hopelessness wash over me. It seemed to me that to believe in the sense of that brought with it epistemological and ontological requirements that could take decades to fully suss out.

It still does.

It suggests a worldview in which everything is controlled somehow by a cabal of celebrity rapist Illuminati charged with maintaining a delicate balance of celebrity sexual assault.

For the next five years I tried to work through it, or work around it, ignore it, and I just never could. My friends who still teach are all better at it than I ever was or was ever going to be and I don't mean any of this as any kind of indictment of the profession. It's just the story of what happened to me.


Jim Duffy said...

Great post, Stan. Your moment of truth is quite common, actually. When a college instructor realizes for the first time that his students are smarter than he is, typically he goes through four stages of academic ego castration: denial, confusion, resignation, tenure. The fact that you're "still working it out" suggests you got yourself stuck in first or second gear. While your decision to retire from teaching might prohibit you from ever reaching stage four, know that third gear can get you most places you need to go: doctor's office, bank, grocery store, etc, no problem. Keep writing. It's the best form of therapy.

Stan Denski said...

Hmmm.... I did have that moment when I was a visiting scholar for a semester and teaching doctoral students where I recognized many of my students as smarter than me. Especially those who were reading the texts I'd assigned in their original French and German and pointing out problems with translations. And I had the same moment a couple of times with undergraduate students in independent study. There was never any "ego castration" involved however because, by that time I was a student of Freire and Giroux and recognized that as a wonderful moment, not a threatening one.

The moment I blogged about would not count as a moment of realization that my students were smarter, unless there really is a secret cabal of celebrity rapists controlling things from, behind the scenes. No, it was more a realization that my students had problems that I was never going to have any effect upon whatsoever and that I was wasting my time.

More like that.