dagNotes: on personal experience
I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot lately because I miss it. I love the reading and writing I’ve had and will have over the next year, but I really will be excited to get back in the classroom. As a result, I’ve been thinking about personal experience in general.
In my last post, I wrote:
you can always tell the “left-y” kids who are going to grow into thirty-something reactionary, populist conservatives. they’re the ones who find alex jones funny now and who secretly troll conspiracy sites. they’re into anything spectacular and violent.
I have over a decade of experience with this in writing, ethics, composition, and freshman-seminar courses. Young and reactionary conservatives, who are vocally loyal to their communities, churches, and/or parents often are the most willing to listen, read, study, critically think, and revise their thinking about society. I don’t know if this speaks to my pedagogical principles or my teaching style, but the conservative kids spent more time active in class, in my office, and walking campus with me talking about their anxieties, their social problems, their daily lives.
This is not to say that my mission was to turn students. Don’t get me wrong. As a teacher, I can care less. Let me put it better: Teaching to transgress is not about teaching conservatives to be left wing. I know there are teachers out there who try to teach to and do things for or against their students. I’m not like that. As a matter of fact, I tend to teach writing instensive classes, and so I really can’t do that if I’m at all focused on working on their writing and voices, no matter how much I dislike their prose, verse, and voices.
Anyway, I’m stating something I observed between 1999-2007 in my classrooms. Many of those young men—it tends to be the men, though it’s not a given—experienced transformation through transgression during their Freshman and Sophomore years in college and university. Just going to school and registering for courses that “have nothing to do with what I’ll be doing” was transgression enough to get them talking. Being able to speak in public and learning to become more articulate as speakers and more precise and graceful as writers permitted them a space to not only mature but to grow as citizens. As a lecturer and adjunct, the quiet students remain enigmas to me and I long ago learned to let them be. My job isn’t to examine students. It’s to work with them, along with them, on a project—achieving the objectives in our syllabus. I should mention, I’ve had bigots, homophobes, religious zealots, klan members even—haters of all kinds have participated in my classes. I’m not talking about the odd freak who gets caught being nasty in public.
In contrast, which is what makes it a striking observation for me as opposed to something that I’d expect everyone experiences who teaches what I teach, almost every one of my younger radical friends abandoned the cause by the 2000s for lives of moderation at least, if not entirely embracing right wing populism. I know a lot of capitalist libertarians who consider themselves socially progressive but realists who were once younger idealistic social justice warriors. (District Attorney and Attorney General offices all over the US are littered with progressive burn outs. I was a public defender investigator for a few years. The last whimper of a social justice warrior turning moderate liberal to conservative populist is usually exhaled in the halls of victim advocacy.)
I came to college a devout progressive who was learning what it meant to study history and to want to write and to teach. I wanted to study philosophy. I felt open to the experience. I was looking for discourse. It’s important to me and to my memory of 1991, especially: an openness. I didn’t arrive knowing answers. I was dedicated to education at a young age. That said, all my dogmatic Marxist-Leninist friends, my friends who were young socialists, those who toyed with actual anarchism, moved right. Every one of them. And everyone of them seemed, back then, closed.
Moreover, and as much as I hate to admit it, the most acerbic and sour-ing—a progressive trait—voices in classroom discourse tended to come from naive social justice liberals who received much self-gratification saying “that’s not correct”, whatever it might have been, whenever the Not-Right popped up in class. I see this all the time on tumblr. Or, they sat silent and self-satisfied, smirking in their seats only to turn in poorly written, trite, cliched, and boring essays week after week that showed the least engagement in course material for the most certainty of righteousness. The worst writers are always those who already know IT. I’m almost certain this has to do with social justice rhetoric and the way the mainstream and radical social justice communities implement concepts/strategies of equality and tolerance that insist on authoritarian modes of uniformity. It’s no wonder we witness so much white supremacy in social justice communities.
In my opinion, the fuel for this problem is a refusal to reject the social order in liberalism. What’s most obscene in liberal progressive societies’ loyalty to capitalism? A rejection of history. What replaces history, what liberals and progressives insist replaces that project, is a profession of personal experience. This is always history denying in its on-going presentation, a profession that is always present-ing itself can’t possibly cope with contemporaneity never mind intention. This project instills within each individual the notion of an undeniable and justified, which means never-should-be-transgressed—private social order that lends itself more to consumerism and business activity than to social work towards a shared, non-economic (in a capitalist sense of that word) cause. Notice I did not use the language of morality here. I did not refer to a shared or economic good.