Everybody knows. Cops are allowed to shoot you for looking at them funny, as long as you are black and/or devastatingly poor, but instead of outrage over murderous cops, the middle class trembles at the blowback they fear from the hoods and finds it outrageous if protesters, however calmly, invade their shopping pleasures with signs and—gasp—force this problem upon their attention. Protesting against injustice has become unacceptable because it’s all about law and order here in the Homeland, however much criminality has gone mainstream. Rick Parry thinks he can become president despite that felony indictment, and really, why not? The banks forge documents with impunity, and NPR reports it breezily. Obama decides who to drone every Tuesday, snickering at international law, because the war of terror is our sacred mission. Incarceration for proliferating victimless crimes has become a boon for the stock market—but why go on? You get the picture.
Well, it’s not really true that everybody knows. At the state colleges I’ve been teaching in these last dozen years, most of the freshman English students don’t know much of anything, but are excited to be of voting age. Most admit that after reading a few paragraphs they get sleepy; some say they get nothing at all out of reading, nothing at all. They say that people have different learning styles so it’s really unfair of me to expect them to read 30 pages a week, particularly stuff that hasn’t been sparknoted. I try to help them with that reading problem: find a good time and place where you can concentrate, drink some coffee or get a script for amphetamines—but before you fall that desperately low, slap yourself hard on the cheek. I demonstrate this for them, explaining that it really has to sting. I’m always trying to help.
I’m 57, and seem to recall a time when Amerikans had at least some sense of justice. I like to think that the problem is ignorance, so these past dozen years I’ve been working to help our young get a grip on some realities other than who is liking whom on Facebook, and it has been, for most of those years, a very rewarding experience—not monetarily, mind you, but certainly for all the cool people who have dropped into my classes, mostly people with some distance from the crushing boredom of sheltered extended Amerikan childhood and with some experiences of reality: the veterans who have seen the light, the ex-cons caught in the drug wars, the ones whose IT careers exited to India, the immigrants from far and wide, the survivors of homelessness in what I am now supposed to call the blighted neighborhoods, plus even a few from the suburbs who had managed to survive their schooling with some of their native intelligence intact. They were enormously helpful co-teachers, supporting my contention that the world is not what it looks like from your typical suburban Amerikan teenager’s high school graduation ceremony, and thereby improving the insights of our citizenry.
I think it was about 2006 that I decided that it was altogether stupid to make my students buy textbooks when I could just give them links to articles I read myself, and that worked out pretty well for a while. I’d collect articles from various online news sources of things I thought the students should know about, and one thing I really wanted them to know about was torture.
Learning about torture from such “safe” media outlets as PBS, The Nation, and The New Yorker had some strange effects on people’s writing. Some who had been writing very coherent, grammatically correct essays and journals totally lost it: they were so rattled by finding out what the military was up to that they could not manage a single correct sentence. Some, in their journals, told me about their traumatic experiences trying to relay this information to friends, who told them that Muslims get what they deserve, and how could they be so unpatriotic? Some whose essays had looked like they had been dashed off in 20 minutes under the influence of tequila started writing with precision and focus. A young man from Afghanistan hugged me, so grateful and surprised to find that an Anglo-Amerikan saw things from his point of view. “Yeah, what about those terror alerts!” he said, delighted to not be feared.
Mostly the classes held up pretty well under the unexpected onslaught of reality I treated them to. Actually, a lot is being written about the cluelessness of our young, but I handled it this way: I told them that their schooling has been boring and stressful, all day at school being told what to do, and then a part-time job by the time you’re 15 or 16, plus homework; and with all that “learning,” they can’t remember how to do long division or where to place a comma. All that knowledge crammed into their heads keeps leaking out their ears: the “cram, test, forget, repeat” cycle accrues little knowledge, let alone wisdom, but merely creds. Most of them appreciated me for clueing them in. Most young people actually appreciate being told the truth and being treated like adults rather than unruly wards, and will forget about their smartphones and begin to focus if given something compelling to think about.
Eventually I decided to have “torture debates” and found out some things that I really don’t want to know, but I know them now and you should too.
Eight years ago, one class reacted very badly to the torture debate I'd assigned. I had divided the class randomly into groups of four; the groups had to research the reasoning for using torture. Half the groups had to argue pro, half con. They had to give little presentations, and I picked, randomly, which side they’d argue. This enterprise was doomed from the start because this really hot chick—long blonde hair, big blue eyes, lots of cleavage and stiletto-heeled boots—proclaimed that her boyfriend said it was fun to kill Iraqis, and none of those boys with their tongues hanging out were going to disagree. I barely stopped myself from saying, “Do you actually sleep with that guy?” She had seemed sensible enough! There was a fundamentalist Christian chick in there too, also lots of cleavage and a burning desire to write an essay about how she should be able to pack a gun, and a lot of representative fascist white guys who no doubt spent most of their time watching gonzo porn while doing their Business 101 homework.
The worst of those boys were all together in a group, and were charged with arguing against torture. Their presentation: they said a few feeble things in a sing-song voice (eg “so and so says it can make people lie”) and then they sat there glaring at me in silence, their pumped up arms folded. Quite the performance!
Another anti-torture group did a bit better. They said torture was unfair because only 12 percent of Muslims are terrorists. I stopped them and asked where they got that figure. The girl who had said it looked at the guy who hopes to work for the NSA, and after a five-second pause he said, “I made it up.” I said, “Oh, now I see why we have to spend so much money defending the Homeland and keeping those torture chambers busy. Did you look up how many Muslims there are in the world? Do the math!” The girl continued, constantly repeating the phrase “what they did to us on 911.” I kept interrupting her, asking “Who are they?” However, this did not stop her from saying it over and over again. I suppose that was unprofessional of me.
How do you even grade crap like that? The unofficial yet iron rule is that you are not allowed to flunk more than a few. Usually the torture debates had gone somewhat better. For instance, in one class this guy, who was supposed to be arguing pro-torture, showed the scene in Braveheart where William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, gets eviscerated in a frenzied crowd. When I asked him how that scene could possibly give credence to torture, he said, “I just thought it was cool.” I was heartened by the fact that most of the students thought he was an out-to-lunch asshole.
OK, so sometimes things can get out of hand if the teacher decides to rock the boat a bit and get people to actually think about things like the realities of our military “adventures,” but one can never expect perfection, and of the 100 or so classes I taught from 2005 to 2015, only two went into meltdown, so we’re talking a very high success, or at least non-disaster, rate, and nobody died. The Christian fundamentalist girl did not take a pink gun out of her purse and shoot me, praise the Lord. And even if those classes edged into surrealism, some of the students, even in those classes, heard the message that the only purpose of torture is torture, that our glorious military and the CIA are lying when they say their most despicable, depraved, sadistic, disgusting acts are unfortunately necessary to keep us all safe. No, they get off on torturing, just like the gonzo porn devotees who glared their hostility at me. At the end of that class, the one veteran came up to me and said, “I just want you to know I have no problem with anything you said. We from the military know the public has been told a simple story.” I only wish she would have helped me out a little. Most veterans do.
Nonetheless, I gave up on the torture debates after that disastrous class. Sometimes my standards are too high, and I was feeling an arctic breeze invading this great nation.
As above, so below. These past few years, things have changed in how the administrations handle freshman English. When I began teaching, the attitude was that the teachers could be trusted to conduct classes as they saw fit. This is increasingly less true, and at the other place I’ve been teaching, I no longer have the ability to choose my readings; the head of the enterprise has compiled a customized textbook, and a set of writing prompts I must use. I am no longer to implement my curriculum, but his, and there’s nothing about torture or anything like that in his textbook. To read it, you would have no reason to suspect that our nation is engaged in any kind of global battlefield, although it purports to be a collection of the crucial issues facing Amerikans.
Two years ago, at the college where that girl told about the joys of murder, I was nominated for the "the teacher who changed my life" award, which had just opened up to adjuncts, and the administration immediately shut me down: the classes I was assigned magically folded two semesters in a row, although they never had before. Maybe I’m just paranoid. I wonder what those students said.
To demonstrate the change in administrative thinking, some of those angry boys in the really disastrous torture debates ran to the dean to complain and gave me very bad evaluations—I am not teaching an English class, they said, by which they mean I am not lecturing on comma splices for the 50th time and have the audacity to tell them that if they really want to know, they can look it up or even go to the writing center--but this was eight years ago, before the administrators realized they must be very careful (I will not be so forthright as to say assholes) to have a career, and so I did not lose my job there at the time. I explained to my boss what had happened, and he laughed and said “Holy crap!” And all was fine.
Now the common explanation given for the change in administrative attitudes concerning academic freedom is that they are besieged with students charging bias and insensitivity to their feelings, but I’m not really buying it altogether. Sure, there is some of that, but from what I’ve gleaned, it seems that there is a line of command. I am a private, answerable to my boss, who is answerable to the dean, who is answerable to the provost, who is answerable to the university president; and the state issues orders, and is ultimately answerable to the Department of Education, which is answerable to…(do you need a multiple choice exam?) The state, for instance, told the community college I got kicked out of that freshman English must teach less literature. That was a few years ago. When I asked my boss there how much less, she said she did not know. My other boss, in the other college, told me that there are things you cannot say in a class, but refused to elaborate when I asked him to. Something smells putrid in all of this, like just about everything in what Joe Bageant referred to as the “zombie food court”—this great nation, that is. The rules are unwritten and unspoken, and you will be judged by whether or not you know what they are.
The next time, a few years later, that a student told me it’s all good fun to kill Iraqis illustrates what I mean. This was at a state university where the student body is quite diverse, unlike the community college where the first disaster occurred, and people from some of the worst inner city schools in the nation end up there and have to compete with the suburbanites. Unfortunately, this can make the children of the ghettos so hostile to what white people think they should have to learn that I am unable to help them, and this was definitely the case in this class. I can’t say I blame them.
Two young black chicks sat in the back texting, and when I asked one of them (let’s call her G) to please try to pay attention and put that phone away, she gave me what for: “I don’t care about anything you have to say!” she shouted. “I want to get an education degree so I can move myself and my daughter out to some rich suburb, and all I want to know from you is how to use commas.” One of the white boys said, “Really, commas? In college?” to which she replied, “Nobody’s taught me commas since third grade, and how am I supposed to remember what I learned in third grade.” I suggested she take advantage of the writing center tutors for that, and she said “I don’t have time for that bullshit.”
Good points, don’t you think? She has a daughter and a full load of classes, and some of those people in the writing center can’t write themselves, and would likely tell her to put a comma wherever she hears a pause. By the way, many of my students have told me they believe their high school teachers actually read the first paper of the year and then just apply that grade to everything else they write. It’s possible!
The identity politics in this class were rather complex. Add to the above-mentioned issues the fact that there were two older students in this class. One was a 35 year old black woman from Jamaica who was retaking English 101 because she got a C in it the first time, and even though she went to the dean to tell him that teacher was biased—even though she took other students with her who agreed with her—he would not change her grade. She needed As so she could become a psychiatrist (heaven help us). Let’s call her X. The other one was a quite evolved white man, also thirty-ish, who had gone to art school but had never graduated because who needs a degree to be an artist? He was teaching part-time at a Montessori kindergarten but needed a degree to get full-time work there, and wanted to set up a Montessori school for poor children. He felt that getting to our children as early as possible was crucial. His daughter had been able to go to the Montessori kindergarten he was working in, but he’d had to put her in public school for first grade. She came back from the first day of class and asked him why those children act that way. Let’s call him Y.
Being 35, a senior, and charismatic to most people’s minds, X had apparently assumed she would dominate the class, and she hated Y with a passion from day one because he disagreed with her about the US having the best medical care in the world, and even more so because his comments always showed a thorough comprehension of the readings and an understanding of how their messages connected up with related ideas in his vast leisure reading, so he was fun to talk with. X’s comments were also prolific but always started with “that reminds me of something I heard on Oprah,” and also always revealed that she had not read the assigned texts.
One day I’d just shown the class Adam Curtis’s “Oh Dearism” and was engaging in discussion. One young woman, whom I will refer to as H, said, “Why care about starving children in Africa when Jesus is coming back? Everybody better get back to church.”
That comment did not get a response from me. Another student mentioned a Rolling Stone article about US soldiers taking trophies from the people they had murdered. That’s when H said, “I come from a good Christian military family, and my uncles told me it was fun to kill Iraqis and throw them in the river.” White man Y asked calmly, doesn’t doing that conflict with their religion? At that point, a veteran had a PTSD attack and started crying.
Just a tad out of control? The story Is not even nearly finished. All I said, as calmly as possible, was that some people start to enjoy killing when they go to war—General Petraeus said so himself—and tried to move the discussion forward to the assigned text, “America the Ignorant” by Laura Miller. Perhaps I went into a fugue state, as I cannot remember how that went, but the second the clock ticked past class period time, H jumped out of her seat and attacked Y, sticking her finger in his face and screaming “Don’t you dare criticize my religion!” X and this sweet boy of the ghetto, who actually is going to medical school currently, had to pull her off of him, and she rushed out of there and could be heard screaming all the way down the hall.
(By the way, if you have children, live in Amerika, and are considering encouraging your kids to take out loans to go to college, consider this advice: instead, encourage them to drop out of high school at age 16 and teach themselves, and if they ever need to get a corporate job, just lie about having the appropriate degree. I have known people who have been very successful using that approach—and even if they are found out, corporations adore a good liar—but I digress.)
The next morning at eight a.m. I got a call from my boss at that college, yelling at me. G, H, and X had gone to his office and had complained that I was biased toward Y and that I had been rude to H, getting into her business outside of class time. It took me about 20 minutes to get him to stop screaming accusations, and 40 minutes more to convince him that maybe my version was half right.
Absurdities followed. He kept calling me at home to discuss my incapacity to handle classroom discipline. One of the girls in the class, a heartbreakingly earnest, intelligent girl, incorrectly diagnosed bipolar (I’d call it wonderfully reactive), told me that X was passing out nail polish to all the females and spreading the rumor that I was having an affair with Y, who incidentally was 20-something years my junior and happily married. X asked me about my grade once out in the hall and I said that her participation grade was pulling her down, and she reacting by screaming “you hate me; you’ve always hated me,” causing quite the ruckus and disturbing everyone’s smartphone concentrations. I allowed her to rewrite all her papers but she would have none of my advice. She, as well as G and H, refused to show up at my writing tutorials. Finally I suggested to my boss that Y and I come talk to him about the class, and he said there was a rule that I could not talk to him with a student present, and then the next week he called me to say I must come in to talk to him and X.
One day in class I announced that it is a very good idea to talk to my boss if I am giving you trouble, and it is also permissible to tell him good things about me too. The student who is going to medical school, whom the ghetto schools had given up on, asked the name of my boss and put my answer in his smartphone. He knew how to use that device wisely. I found out later that he had gathered some students and had gone to my boss to explain the situation.
I am a kind person, at least in my estimation, so when it came time to compute final grades, I gave X full credit for participation (after all, she had participated A LOT), ignored the fact that she had not written her weekly journals, and dropped out the C- essay, and with a few more manipulations got her up to a B+. I wanted her off everyone’s back, but she was not satisfied, not at all. She went to my boss to complain, and he called me in and said I must help him with her. I said I did not have to help him (if you are an adjunct, the rule is that beyond crap pay, no job security, and no respect, you must also carry water for your boss).
OK, enough. There’s much more to just these two moments in time, but now that you have heard a couple of my choice anecdotes, you may be able to understand why I have been booted out of that job as well, and maybe you can even understand why I am considering starting a papermill, writing freshmen English papers for the bucks from the rich kids. After all, who is really going to care if they can think beyond their obscene, fanatical desires? Maybe I could use their money to facilitate that Montessori school Y wants to build.
I have two final things to say: first, I have little sympathy for people who will play the game to get tenure—to be honest, absolutely none. Our country is in, and is, a grave danger, and nothing can be done about it if the schools continue to churn out the sorts of Amerikans that cannot see beyond the rank stupidity of the media show and their own pretentious consumer desires. A truly educated public trumps unions, and certainly the tenured teachers’ comfortable lives.
The second one should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. We need to find a way to teach our children, and each other, because the corporatocracy has taken over the state schools from kindergarten on, and all too few are strong enough to pass through without being deformed into their oh-so useful cogs.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.