Feelings and education

by CarlD

For my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class this semester I started out with Ira Bashkow’s The Meaning of Whitemen, which I’m using as I often do as an excuse to read it, based on Rex at Savage Minds’ recommendation. It’s really a terrific book about race, modernity and Papua New Guinea, for a lot of straightforward reasons. This post, however, is tangential, drawing out a thread about the management of other people’s feelings that weaves into an ongoing interest of mine here.

Ira argues that the meaning of whitemen is fully entangled with the Orokaiva cultural world, notably as a highly-conventionalized “vehicle for achieving valued forms of social agreement and unity” (214). Pragmatically, the Orokaiva construction of whitemen as the familiar Other offers a “safe idiom” in which shared understandings can be deployed to challenge and criticize other Orokaiva without creating direct antagonism. Critical discourse is crafted in terms of implied contrasts with whitemen, who are not present to be offended and are outsiders to the discussion anyway. Of course we can easily see this same sort of dynamic at work in many more familiar uses of the near Other to make points while leveraging solidarity and deflecting antagonism, such as the typical ways men talk about women together and vice versa, or the ways workers talk about bosses together and vice versa.

Although the book is about this Orokaiva construction and deployment of whitemen to create and maintain their own unity, Ira spends the second chapter backfilling a more general picture of the Orokaiva cultural world in the context of the postcolonial situation. It turns out that the management of conflict and maintenance of unity is very important to the Orokaiva in general, not least because they value both competition and equality, autonomous individuality and community obligation, fundamental tensions that require elaborate dynamic balancing. As a result Orokaiva are exquisitely sensitive to perceived slights and inequalities, and spend a great deal of effort in formal etiquettes of status smoothing. Orokaiva relations with whitemen are thus complicated by whitemen’s “brightness,” their surplus of cargo and “lightness” with respect to their obligations of correcting for that in their dealings with others. As admirers of autonomy and competition the Orokaiva admire whitemen for their knowledge, accomplishments and swag, but as sticklers for equality think they’re missing something really critical about being together in the world.

Pursuant to the value of equality Orokaiva pay a whole lot of attention to each others’ feelings, but ‘values’ don’t quite tell the whole story. Habit and ritualization ‘operationalize’ values, of course. And no doubt they actually care about each other sometimes. But more materially they inflict consequences on each other for not. Hurt feelings such as jealousy justify retaliation, ranging from ruptured relationships to theft and spoilage to sorcery to violence and warfare.

In class the other day all of this came to an interesting head. We’d been working on how to write an evidence-based analytical essay, and over the weekend I had read draft introductory paragraphs. It became clear from these (as it had been from class discussion) that some of the students were not reading the book and were winging it. I opened class by pointing out that for an evidence-based analysis winging it is not in the game yet. But then I asked why students might choose not to read. Let’s bracket judgment and think of this as a practice that has meaning and integrity for its practitioners, I said. How might ignoring or resisting the instructional materials of the class make sense?

Laziness and poor commitment were cited, and I acknowledged that these could sometimes be fully explanatory without otherwise rewarding this transparent gambit to guess what I wanted to hear. We noted that students are often able to get away with not reading, playing limpy until in desperation or resignation the teacher spoonfeeds them what they need to pass. And of course some teachers just default to spoonfeeding without any particular effort on students’ part. But one student who I knew wasn’t reading was steaming over the conversation, so I asked him what he was thinking about. He said he had no interest in being told he was ignorant by some showoff smartypants [book author]. And there we had it.

This is the conflict of the classroom. “Bright” teachers show up and regale the students with their wisdom; day after day the students are reminded of how ignorant and inadequate they are. Each accomplishment leads only to a new threshold of humiliation. Without any mechanism of reciprocity or status smoothing students’ feelings are systematically subordinated, ignored and trampled. Ingratiation, passivity, smoldering resentment and sabotage are the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ responses.

Bashkow and I, who should have known better, attack the students with a book in which we flaunt our superior knowledge and linguistic facility without offering redress. No wonder they don’t want to read it. I laid this all out and asked the students how the Orokaiva would address this problem. Today I find out what they came up with, although I don’t expect to transform this deeply-embedded disfunction overnight. Since the Orokaiva usually use throwing a feast as their leveler, maybe I should buy them pizza and maybe Bashkow should have included a coupon for it in the book.

Interestingly, this problem did not arise at all in the evening section of the class. Part of it is that those students are mostly older and more intentionally committed to their education. But part of it, they told me when we talked about it Monday evening, is that I told them I was reading the book along with them. It happened to come up with them but not with the day students. The evening folks said that our shared process of discovery created a feeling of solidarity for them and helped them through the difficulties of the text. Something I know, off and on; something to remember.


13 Responses to “Feelings and education”

  1. Gotta say, your smoldering student makes me want to dope-slap him; luckily I have a no-hitting rule. He IS ignorant–that would be why he is in school. However, ignorance is a curable condition. (Stupid probably not so much.) Everyone is ignorant about some things, even many things; part of the purpose of education is to reduce the number of things about which one is completely ignorant, and to reduce greatly the amount of ignorance of at least a couple of subjects, and, arguably, to make one aware of the depth and breadth and lifelong nature of one’s general ignorance, and to provide the tools by which one can utilize that ignorance in productive ways (by maintaining curiosity, frex, or by not always assuming that one knows everything, or by not needing to know everything).

    Seriously; he needs to reframe his vision there. You’re not showing up every day to flaunt your smartypantsness; you’re providing students with opportunities to learn things, and to learn how to learn things. Also also too, his (presumed) equation of ignorance with inadequacy speaks to his own issues, not to the structure of the situation.

    why, yes, your account of him DID make me annoyed about him.

  2. I’m not 100% sure that his response should be taken at face value. It strikes me as a classic face-protecting move – I don’t want to do the reading, but I don’t want the embarrassment that comes with not having done the reading, so I pre-empt the situation by suggesting that the teacher makes me do the reading for the sole purpose of causing me embarrassment to his/her benefit.

  3. Hi, Gavin! Good point – no doubt you’re right. It was a bad moment for him and he did some flailing. But this still leaves the question of why he didn’t want to do the reading in the first place. Even if the short answer for many students is laziness, there’s generally nothing much wrong with their focus and commitment when they’re doing something of which they perceive the value.

    Narya, thanks for your support. I believe you speak for a great many of my colleagues and you’ve deftly captured the ‘other’ side of the conflict I’m exploring.

    To update, today the students were a little slow to warm to the topic, but once they got started some seething resentments of high-handed, uncaring teachers spouting junk useless to their lives as if it was terribly important emerged. Even the ‘good’ students joined in with their frustration over the waste of their time in droning lectures, crammable tests on obscure trivia, and swift post-examination brain-dumps. That education is experienced as wasteful and conflicted by even the good students points to something more than individual pathology.

    I offered that the offending ‘brightness’ of their teachers suggested an analogy with whitemen, just as their own frustration, hurt feelings and resentment suggested an analogy with the Orokaiva. We also talked about the ‘dead vole’ theory and I informed them that however ludicrous it might seem, like my cats with their repulsive little treasures their teachers believed they were offering gifts of great value. We considered the possibility that receiving these gifts with attention and care would itself be a form of mutually-satisfying reciprocity. I don’t expect that little kumbaya trick to survive their familiarization with the history of colonialism.

    Btw, the original steamed non-reader likes me a lot and took the class on purpose because I was teaching it. It’s Bashkow he was pissing about. Sorry for the ambiguous wording!

  4. It occurs to me what I should have said in relation to face-saving and face-value is that ‘face’, in that East-Asian-Italian-Goffmanesque sense of status performance, is really the issue here. What ‘faces’ do students have available to them, and what strategies to produce and protect them?

  5. Every time you do one of these posts, it makes me wish I were in school.

  6. You’re my kind of nerd. You may want to wait for Sheriff Narya to clean up the town, though. The frustration she articulates is not just that of teachers whose delicious dead voles and civilizing mission are being rejected, but that of the ‘best’ students who identify with the teachers and resent the savages for dragging down the level of the class.

  7. This is the conflict of the classroom. “Bright” teachers show up and regale the students with their wisdom; day after day the students are reminded of how ignorant and inadequate they are. Each accomplishment leads only to a new threshold of humiliation. Without any mechanism of reciprocity or status smoothing students’ feelings are systematically subordinated, ignored and trampled. Ingratiation, passivity, smoldering resentment and sabotage are the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ responses.

    This is very resonant to me just now, as it could easily be expanded from a couple of particular pieces of anonymous feedback I had last semester. I tend to try and balance things by self-deprecation, but of course I’m still pouring knowledge at them, so I’m slightly at a loss for how to really create much reciprocity.

    Also, because the first classes I ever taught, where it was clear that the students knew I was new to it, went much better. I put that down, also, to them being mature students who were just more interested in the material, but it’s another strange echo. Unfortunately, medieval history in a course set by someone else doesn’t give me much scope to examine the social processes of the classroom as you’ve been doing… but I should perhaps look for some.

  8. The very first class I taught featured some of this kind of animosity–it was a class on the social construction of gender, and there were 40 kids in the class, and several of the men (and more than a few of the women) were all “we don’t need no stinkin feminism! we’re all equal!” Rather than challenge that directly, I utilized a lot of discussion and some good readings, and I could see a lot of wheels start to turn. Not so much with the men, but, hey, their problem, not mine. (And one looked all hippy-dippy-peace-out, but was, in some ways, the worst one of the bunch.)

    The real turning point was the class discussion on dating (after reading some of Beth Bailey’s excellent “From Front Porch to Back Seat”): how do you know when you’re on a date? I asked. What constitutes a date? What do you do?

    And, poof: the women mostly wanted to pay their own way, especially on the first couple of dates, because they didn’t want to feel like they owed the guy anything. (And these were NOT what I would call a bunch of feminist women, mind you.) The men were all, but I’m SUPPOSED to pay! Because I’m the Man! And it’s not because I want anything in return! It’s because I’m the man! It was absolutely fascinating, and, possibly, when a lot of what I was teaching starting really crystalizing. I loved that class.

  9. A slightly different non-classroom angle: While active in Democrats Abroad, I heard it suggested that the reason Al Gore didn’t win decisively in 2000 was because, unlike Bill Clinton, he behaved too much like the smart aleck who always does well in school. I recall thinking at the time that one thing us smart folks don’t like to think about is that, for most people, the classroom is never fun. It’s the place where they are always second rate, if not outright failures, and get their noses rubbed in it.

  10. Jonathan, maybe the fact that the course is not as you would have chosen it could be an entry-point to solidarity with the students? In a sense you’re in the same boat with them – finding this common ground is key. Then after some ritual bitching about ‘The Man’ you can show them how to be open to and make the most of the experience.

    Narya, sounds like a great class! Here’s to teaching ourselves into irrelevance.

    John, yes, exactly.

  11. Another update: the cranky student actually did the reading for his paper and wrote a reasonably informed, focused and intelligent analysis.

    Meanwhile, in my World History class a bright student who has been an asset to class discussion did the same rant about the textbook, which is written at what I would consider to be a high-school level but which he described as a bunch of Princeton profs getting their intellectual jollies at student expense. So in one class the boulder’s nearing the top of the hill and in another it’s at the bottom.


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