I came across a very interesting interview with one Michael Denning, a marxist cultural studies person at Yale. I’m particularly interested in his comments on graduate education; evidently he has organized a research collective co-organized with students. He says there’s a big difference between a seminar, where the teacher doesn’t write but only grades the students’ work, and a collective where everyone is working together. He comments:
“Particularly after the first year, people in a graduate program are part of the profession, they’re part of the industry. They have exactly the same day-to-day concerns as I do: how do you manage teaching on the one hand, and getting your research done on the other, which is the central structure of the research university. That’s why I don’t really think of this as graduate training.”
“Even though obviously I’ve written and published more than they have, nonetheless I’m not in the position of simply teaching the course, reading what they write, and evaluating that. I’m putting my new writing on the table at the same time they are, and getting the feedback and arguments.”
So the idea is that, in humanities and social sciences, student work differs from faculty work more in degree than in kind, particularly for students who are teaching and doing research at once. A major realization for me has been that the distinction between “graduate students” and “faculty,” indeed the whole system of academic role classification, derives at least as much from economic and ideological forces as from any educational principle. For instance, it seems to be the case that universities like mine don’t have to pay payroll tax if they don’t classify graduate student teachers as employees. Or in my department, the rhetoric of “apprenticeship” can serve to justify various economic inequalities (why should all students get paid if they’re not working but only apprenticing?).
Denning also has an important, one could say a “materialist” analysis of the lack of radical potential in education:
“Most American leftists are Deweyite liberals when it comes to education: they think education changes minds and society, and the reason they teach is to teach critical skills that will change students. That has always seemed odd to me. Coming out of the Marxist tradition, and particularly out of Gramsci, I’ve always had a much more modest approach to teaching than most of my radical teaching colleagues. Teaching, and going to school, does not shape people’s ideas. People’s ideas are shaped by the material circumstances that they come out of, the material situations they find themselves in, by “making a living.” It’s not that people can’t change their minds and ideas—you’re not set by where your family came from or what you learned in your formative years, because you’ve got new challenges. You may come from a family with money and now you have no job, or vice-versa—a lot of things can happen. Moments of crisis change people’s thinking. As a teacher, I’m simply trying to give people some of the resources, the cultural commons, that may be useful when those moments of crisis hit. I’ve always thought that if anyone became a socialist after taking my class, well, they’d be a neoliberal next semester after taking somebody else’s class.”
So it’s treacherous to overvalue the potential of teaching to truly change students… which only emphasizes this important point: that teaching is not in itself a sufficient form of political involvement. But it’s still necessary even if not sufficient.