The teacher’s body

I used to have a pretty decorporealizing view of teaching, back when I was starting out as a classroom ethnographer. I mainly paid attention to the teacher’s voice, to classroom discourse, to power and authority structures. This was a strategy of objectification that I used to find useful, critical, and sufficient. It was also a product of the theoretical atmosphere at the time (2003-4), with its emphasis on language, semiotics, and micropolitics.

But now that I’m teaching, I find myself more and more affected by the weird force of collective gaze and mood that constantly strikes the teacher’s body. To teach is to be observed. To be seen. I used to see teachers as subjects, agents who were generative of social structure. Now it’s sinking in just how much teachers are also objects. Objects of students’ perception. Of their own self-perception. Of historical expectations that they had no hand in creating. They become meteorological instruments measuring the collective weather.

In the classroom I’m constantly getting caught up in these little gusts or gales of shared affect. Sometimes there’s a good atmosphere or a sense of excitement. Other times the room feels confused, lost, paused, stuck. I’m the first to admit that this kind of affective knowledge of the classroom situation is horribly unreliable; you don’t really know what anyone is thinking just by looking at them. But it’s still the best feedback you have, the most immediate measure of collective sentiment. An imperfect form of realtime knowledge that – as a realtime social actor — you need.

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A classroom scene, #1

I’ve decided to start typing up some of the scenes of everyday life at Paris 8 that made it into my fieldnotes. Here’s one encounter.

It’s the 1st of December, 2009. I’m having coffee with a young man who is my classmate in a class on The Symptom (le symptôme). I think his name is K., but am not sure. He has dark, long hair, a prematurely tired face, a short body, a set of metal crutches and a handicapped leg that dangles.

He is in trouble, he says. He says he doesn’t get what is going on in any of his seven classes. He isn’t sure what he is going to do when midterms come [les partiels].

We talk about the relationship between the department’s pedagogy and its politics. It’s unclear what the relationship is, we agree. But, he adds, one little link [un petit lien] comes in the form of the relations between professors and students. Our teacher in the symptom, for instance, is a lot closer to her students than a traditional teacher would be. But nevertheless: he doesn’t know her name. He doesn’t know any of his professors’ names, he says. He’s only there for the ideas, he says.

K. would leave Paris 8 after that school year, going back to Toulouse where he was from. He had been living in Paris in a cheap apartment, but had never been happy there, hadn’t made a lot of friends, he would tell me, resignedly.

K. was himself a symptom. Of something. His alienation, we might too readily suggest, was the social and subjective product of low status, youth, lack of Parisian social networks, and non-membership in the philosophical nobility, with its characteristic forms of language. He really believed in the intrinsic value of philosophical ideas that Paris-8 offered, but by his own account, couldn’t make sense of them.

French university pedagogy seen by an American

Something should be said about professor-student relations. For the most part, contact is limited to the classroom, where the student’s ignorance is taken for granted and the professor does all the talking without permitting questions. The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.

At Nice last summer, on the final day of a month-long session, the students, under the direction of the two young American assistants, prepared a series of skits commenting on their experience. One skit consisted of two scenes in a classroom. First, an “American” professor entered in sports shirt and tennis shoes, telling his students he wanted to know them and inviting them to his office to discuss their problems, even their life outside the classroom. When he had finished his brief, informal talk, he asked if there were any questions, and of course no hands were raised. The next scene presented a young woman, a doctoral candidate from the Sorbonne, as the lecturer — chic, crisp, equipped with a quire of notes. At the end of her virtually unintelligible lecture, she too asked if there were any questions. When a dozen eager hands shot up, she replied coolly, “Answer them among yourselves. I shall see you again next week at this same hour.”

I found this in an American’s comments on French university pedagogy… set in Bordeaux… in 1966. In other words, in a moment fairly far removed — one might think — from contemporary university realities here. It’s a description from an era when a novelistic style of describing everyday life was more common in academics’ professional commentary, and some of its syntax is not contemporary. Take the last sentence of the first paragraph, “The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.” Is there not a ring of a different era in this phrasing, this vocabulary?

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Masculine domination and academic discourse, or, do males speak first in the classroom?

This is going to be crude and quantitative, but I want to give a bit of concrete evidence bearing on a trend that, I suppose, must already be subjectively apparent to everyone who pays attention to gender in academic life: the tendency for males to speak first, or in particular, to be the first to volunteer comments in large public discussions. This obviously isn’t the case always and everywhere, and must be shaped by a large number of variables: group size, topic, distribution of interest and topical expertise, social rank and authority, and degree of acquaintanceship or shared social belonging, to name a few. For instance, I don’t notice this trend when the anthropology faculty, who are colleagues well known to each other, are responding to guest speakers at the weekly department seminar. But I did notice this trend very strongly at a public lecture by Bernie Sanders in December, where about the first ten speakers were all male, while only a very few women got to comment at all, and they were towards the very end of the line.

But to avoid making claims based purely on the hazardous results of personal experience, let me report the following.

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