student-teacher equality & the limits of radical pedagogy

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.

6 thoughts on “student-teacher equality & the limits of radical pedagogy

  1. “teaching is not in itself a sufficient form of political involvement.”

    Agreed 100%

    “But it’s still necessary even if not sufficient.”

    I’m not convinced, but maybe I misunderstand. Necessary in what sense?


  2. Necessary insofar as the only way anyone gets ideas is through education, so for there to be politics, radical or otherwise, there needs to be pedagogy? I think there are a range of outcomes that radical pedagogy can have:

    -can expose students who would otherwise be totally blind neoliberals to alternative ideas (success rate probably low, but non-zero in large classes – anthro-101 type).

    -keep campus radicals from becoming totally depressed, isolated and ultimately demobilized (my guess is that this has made a big difference to feminists and queer activists on campus, having the legitimate and safe space of the classroom to support other forms of activism – not sure if this is true for other politically involved disciplines)

    -serve as a model for alternative forms of social organization (see davydd greenwood et al in Studies in Continuing Education – a long and really interesting reflection on action research participatory pedagogy)

    -help activists to learn from earlier generations, gain historical consciousness (i did once take “sociology of revolutionary movements”), analytical and theoretical skills maybe, etc. our union did have real debates about what “labor” was, last year, and those were, just to give an example, def. theoretically informed.

    i think radical pedagogy has different functions for radicals than it does for non-radicals. not so sure it works reliably as a radicalizing mechanism (though that must depend enormously on historical circumstance), pretty sure it can make a big difference in the social reproduction of radical communities.

    or to rephrase my first point, teaching is just necessary because that’s how society is reproduced, so to abandon it totally to conservative tradition or technocratic vocational projects is to cede a political struggle that is not, again, the most directly politically effective of struggles, but not therefore entirely useless.

    what do you think? I guess the question is whether official university classrooms are the best place for political education. The latter is what I think is necessary; whether it happens in univ. classrooms is contingent I guess, but under present circumstances it seems bizarre to totally give up on it. (Though John Conley’s paper last spring is profoundly right and one shouldn’t overinvest in politically committed pedagogy.)

  3. I’ve only got a moment so I have to try to be brief. I don’t buy the argument that teaching is how society is reproduced, if this is a claim about post-high school education.

    As for “the only way people get ideas is through education” it depends on what you mean. If the claim is that people only get ideas in formal educational settings, I think that’s easily demonstrable as false. If you’re just defining terms such that anything where people get ideas is called education, then fine. But that’s not at all the same as formal educational institutions let alone post-secondary education. All that would really mean is that for any example of politics we will find some component internal to it that we can call education. I rather like that, actually, but I don’t see how this supports any claims about pedagogy or teaching beyond some very basic claim about intra-movement or intra-organizational dynamics. I certainly don’t see how this offers any evidence for claims about teaching defined as employment in a formal institution, let alone in post-secondary education.

    Gotta run, have to engage with the rest later.

    take care,

  4. Of course I don’t think the obviously false claim about formal education being the only way people get ideas, or that there is no society without a university. Not sure why you would even imagine I would think that. Basically I agree with what you seem to find reasonable, that every politics has a necessary moment of knowledge transmission and creation and refraction (not to mention social initiation and identity building) which we can term education.

    Naturally this need not be in universities. But I think you’re too quick to conclude that, because there are non-university forms of (political) education, we can check our politics at the door of the university classroom. My argument would be like: insofar as we are doing education in this setting we have an obligation to bring our politics to it. (Subject to various qualifications about the different ends that this involvement can achieve, as mentioned above.) Analogously, I would argue that even if we are not primarily gender-oriented activists we are still obligated not to forget our political (and ethical) commitments when it comes to our sexual relationships.

    Note that I am not saying that politically inflected teaching, even radical teaching, is a primary means of radical politics, but only that we shouldn’t cede this domain of political contestation, since we are already involved in it and it is already a place where politics is happening. (ie, univ. pedagogy is already the product of major historical arguments/struggles/etc whether or not we ourselves enact it as nothing but the fulfillment of a technical task.) I suppose there are limits to what other tasks can be inflected by one’s political commitments (buying gas? ordering food in a restaurant?) but teaching would seem to be a very plausible arena for some kind of engagement…

  5. hi again Eli,

    Let me say first off that reading over my earlier comment it seems to me that I had a bad tone. Sorry about that. That wasn’t deliberate, I was typing on the go, but I should have been better on that.

    I agree with you 100%. I misunderstood your earlier point, or wasn’t sure I’d understood it anyway. I took you to be making a claim about some social effect – whatever results from education/radical education, and what means there are for bringing it about – where it now seems to me that you’re talking about an ethical obligation on the part of professional educators. I agree with you on that completely. I think there are limits to what can be accomplished in the classroom on this point (I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear me say that) but I think those limits are not plumbed and shouldn’t be presumed operationally – that is, the sort of doubts I have about the limits of what we can accomplish should not translate into lack of effort in teaching. I think attention to social inequality and power broadly and in our students’ own lives should definitely be front and center in the classroom as much as possible.

    I also think that we should get into fights about this stuff within our institution, in terms of course contents and also in terms of formal things like grading and financial aid and plagiarism policies and so on. For instance, where I teach, students get on academic probation if they get below a C average. That means a C is the absolute lowest acceptable grade. At the same time, the institution tries to claim that a C is an average grade and an acceptable grade. If that were true it would mean that most students were just barely above academic probation and that to be so was an acceptable thing. There are institutional pressures against so-called grade inflation (these pressures are always reactionary in my opinion), which neglect the fact that lower grades means that some students will lose financial aid and not finish their degrees, meaning maybe different life outcomes and definitely student loan debt which becomes entirely useless for the students.

    On a related note, I also think there’s a political or rather an ethical component to how one teaches based on the demographics of the students: there are trends in the backgrounds of students who attend different sorts of institutions. It’s reductive but I think still accurate to say that people who are an sort of management-track in terms of life course get an education to match – encouraging activity, getting treated with some measure of respect, more negotiable deadlines and personal attention etc – while people on the employee track get treated more like employees and trained for future employment and impersonal treatment. (There are gradations of course, not just to two tracks, but these basically correspond to social strata.) In response to that, I think there’s an ethical component to working hard to provide to students on lower social tracks a quality and type of teaching which is not in keeping with their social position.

    This is only partly related – have you ever read Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster?

    happy holidays,

  6. I agree with you 100% about this too! Glad to see there are things on which we agree well. And yeah, I think you’re right to characterize my view about radical pedagogy as more about ethical obligation than about causal effectiveness. I am entirely in agreement about contesting pedagogy — I have a huge story about trying to do this as a graduate student faced with conservative pedagogical practices, won’t tell it here, not that successful in the end but super interesting to work on. Did read Ranciere, found it suggestive but not really concrete in the way that Freire is concrete, and mostly inspiring because he seems to believe so sincerely in universal human equality, in a world when very few are making credible claims about equality as a political goal. Inequality or at the very least difference is utterly naturalized in academic worlds… which is definitely related to your comments about trying to compensate for such differences pedagogically.

    incidentally, at Harvard there was a hilarious story about a professor who gave everyone two grades, the “real grade” that he felt his students actually merited and the “fake grade” that was adjusted to local norms of grad inflation and was sent to the registrar. kind of the opposite situation from the idiotic institutional situation you describe. why do you think pressures against grade inflation are always reactionary, btw?

    take care, eli

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