Politics? In MY classroom?

by razumov

(This untimely post is in honor of Chuck, who certainly must have thought about these things over the course of his life.)

Two things have happened to me recently. One, I got a tenure-track job at a university where the students have a professional and not just a personal interest in learning about Russian history. Two, I became politically active, to the extent that joining a socialist organization and doing stuff with them a few hours a week is considered active. It’s my second semester now and I’m teaching Intro to Russia Since 1825–and, of course, this being the revolutionary centennial school year, thinking about the eternal question of Politics In The Classroom.

As an undergrad, even a politically-opinionated one, my opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I did not want to hear about my dumb professors’ political views because I knew that these would amount either to the tepid NPR liberalism I got plenty of elsewhere or something noxiously right-wing that would be even worse. I had enough acrimonious debates with profs in seminars that I knew that a prof who had trouble concealing his (usually his) politics was also unlikely to argue for them in good faith. Instead my favorite classes were the ones that seemed to point to an escape from the political tractor beam of the late Bush era.

As a professor, I’m much less confident of all this than I used to be. First of all, of course, there’s no way to teach the history of Russia’s twentieth century without “classroom politics,” if nothing else because students come in with preconceived ideas shaped by a deeply political process. Even if it were possible, though, would it be desirable? As a socialist I want to help people understand the Soviet experience in the light of its real strengths and weaknesses, not through the kind of propaganda that still wins Pulitzers. As a scholar….I want the same thing. (I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have beliefs if I didn’t think they were true.)

Yet converting this growing comfort with classroom politics into actual teaching has been surprisingly hard. A lot of what I try to do in my lectures–the debunking aspect–involves my mental image of what students already believe. To my surprise, I’m consistently off in my evaluation of these beliefs. The whole class pretty much already understood that the Soviet Union’s role in WWII is consistently downplayed in US schools, for instance, and their opinion on the place of Jews in Imperial Russian and Soviet life (a Fiddler on the Roof narrative I’d thought was fairly widely shared) was in fact pretty much nonexistent. Half the time I must be confusing them awfully, the poor things, as I shadowbox with an opponent not relevant for American students since the 80s. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

The flipside of this is that I’m finding that my interventions make little difference anyway. I assigned an article legendary in my field for marking a shift away from both the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality (Jochen Hellbeck’s “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul”), but my students felt no compunctions about fitting it into their familiar totalitarian view of Stalinist life. Hell, maybe they’re right.

At least, if nothing else, my rant about Nineteen Eighty-Four being the worst possible book for understanding the Soviet Union will stick. I hope.

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5 Comments to “Politics? In MY classroom?”

  1. Thank you! Chuck certainly did think about these things, in his characteristically antiorthodox way. He ended up retiring in no small part because of them, as his insistence on challenging students in their pieties and self-delusions intolerably ran up against institutional pressures to cater to those pieties and self-delusions. He was, proudly, what the Italians call a “rompiscatole,” a pain in the nuts.

    He famously crossed the picket line when Temple’s faculty went on strike. From a Marxist position he was unimpressed with the money-grubbing entitlement of people he scathingly called the “lumpenbourgeoisie.” He thought a radical faculty had a responsibility to their students that was fundamentally incompatible with the traditional wage and workplace demands structured into collective bargaining.

    As I recently mentioned on Facebook, he somehow managed to combine classical republicanism, analytic philosophy, Marxism, existentialism, the evolutionary dynamics of complex systems, and New England stubbornness into a politics he only half jokingly referred to as Eisenhower Republican.

    In short, there was nothing at all partisan about his politics. He could take all of them into the classroom and find a way to challenge and piss off literally anyone, to their great benefit if they were willing to think along with him.

    My own mix is a little different, but the effect is much the same. My liberal students think I’m liberal, and my conservative students think I’m conservative. I don’t think there’s anything at all important at stake in that question from a teaching and learning standpoint. I’m dispositionally and aspirationally an anarchist and certainly that shapes my approach to the classroom setting. But I accept a kind of authority as my responsibility, while inviting my students to be responsible participants as whoever they are and whatever they think, and then I ask them all to consider alternatives and develop their views accordingly.

    I think where we run into trouble is if we think there’s something in particular they’re supposed to know and think when they get through with us. The standard testing regime enforces this, whatever the teacher’s politics in particular. If instead we’d like them to use the opportunity of the class to move along toward better versions of themselves, the rest falls into place. Some of them need to think about how communism was actually a pretty good idea that inspired the ultimate effort of some pretty impressive people and showed great promise to solve real problems. Some of them need to think about how communism degenerated into a horror show not because of one or two Bad Men but because of risks inherent in the dynamics of revolution. Some just need to be made aware that communism is a thing with a kind of specificity that requires and rewards careful study.

    I agree (John Doyle finally convinced me of this here some time ago) that our interventions don’t actually make that much difference. We’re such a tiny fraction of their formative environment, and so easy to dismiss and tune out if what we’re offering is not congenial. “Hell, maybe they’re right” is the best possible response to that, in my view.

  2. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

    Obviously I like this very much. Your priors at this point are all about well defined, multicyclic, evolutionary “fields” and “politics.” In my experience at least, their priors are nothing like that. You’d have to teach them the whole history of your field for Hellbeck’s article to rock their world like it did yours. They’d have to not just know but care about the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality. They’d have to know what totalitarian and revisionist mean. They’d have to have a frame of reference for individuality. They’d need to know who Stalin was.

    Most of my students are politically feral, by my standards, and given the demographics ferally conservative. If they’re following political discourse it’s to learn that libtards and socialists are “the left” and the same thing because they want to take your money and give it away to lazy people. I say none of this with contempt; hell, maybe they’re right.

    Gramsci had this great line about the essential similarity, and genius, of the Catholic catechism and the army corporal’s manual. If you can take fundamental ignorance and attack it with relentlessly repeated rote, you can build a linearly effective consciousness from scratch. Otherwise you’ve got a multibody problem and the trajectories get very eccentric indeed. I think this is the ‘politics in the classroom’ situation in a nutshell.

  3. I’m curious about how you’d present your political positions in class, Razumov. I would think that the history of any country is to a significant degree a political history, so politics have to show up in the classroom as an integral part of the subject being taught/learned. Or are you proposing to discuss/critique the history of Russian politics from your own position as a socialist?

    Do you have a position on whether and how politics implicitly shape the university and the educational experience in capitalistic societies? in socialistic societies? If you were teaching in a socialistic society, how would your practice differ from the way you teach now? Is it possible to expose, and perhaps to perform self-reflexively, these tacit political influences within the context of your academic field?

    I can’t say whether I’d have regarded a prof as more reliable or less so if he’d have been up front about their political views. At least then I might have been less paranoid about the prof trying to manipulate my thinking without my being aware of it. I wouldn’t have wanted to prof to use the dais as a pulpit; I’d rather have explored explicitly in the classroom the implications of the prof’s positions on the subject at hand.

    My own field of advanced study was psychology. There are plenty of theoretical conflicts in that field, with advocates lining up on both sides. My profs were explicit about their own theoretical positions, why they held them, and how those positions shaped their research investigations. Much of class discussion would involve delving into the evidence supporting/refuting those theoretical positions. Probably graduate study in history plays out in a similar way. I guess I’d say that holding and exploring positions in research psychology aren’t that different from holding and exploring political positions: it’s a large part of what makes the subject interesting and moves it along with brio.

    Per your prompting I tracked down online and read Hellbeck’s piece. Having little knowledge of Russian history it’s hard for me to see what’s controversial or revolutionary about it. I’d need more of an intellectual and empirical framework to build on. Is such a framework always a kind of indoctrination, or does it attune you to the cracks and joists and structural flaws? As it is I found myself reading about the diary as if it were written by someone trying to live a born-again Christian life. Is it willpower or immersion in the church/Spirit that cultivates growth of the New Man (a Pauline term)? If it’s not working is it my own fault or that of my fellow believers? Am I real or just faking it? And so on.

  4. Thanks, all!
    Carl, I can see why moving students towards being better versions of themselves is a good goal. I guess the way I’d describe mine is not so much lefty indoctrination as forcing students to confront the complexity of real-world political choices. For leftists as well as rightists who study Russian history there’s always the temptation of the path not taken, whether in 1917, 1928, 1991, or whatever, and it’s always very easy to imagine how it might have turned out “better” than the path in fact taken. I try to explore how false this is, because things happen for a reason and not just because a leader or a party had incorrect ideas or bad personalities. I think some of my students have definitely twigged on to this, which I like, but others are stuck in an older mold–which, given their own background, is usually the US Cold War one.

    (Unfortunately, this semester I have 70 students and the individualized better-version-of-themselves direction is pretty much impossible, considering how little time I have as a new TT prof. So broad-brush brain dumps are the best I can do.)

    Ficticities, that’s a really interesting question. I think in a more socialist society my students would not be pursuing their coursework with an eye to making a career, so they’d be less motivated to please me in exchange for a good grade. I might bring this up, actually–I do talk about some stuff about Soviet student life, like the fact that students got (small) stipends instead of having to pay tuition. And your comments about Hellbeck are right on target. It’s precisely the inability of previous scholars to imagine a Soviet subjectivity that engaged creatively and agonistically with the structures of Soviet ideology that makes this piece so revolutionary, in fact. Prior scholars relied on crude and reductive “homo sovieticus” or liberal models, with the later revisionists turning to a kind of opportunistic/bargaining model that didn’t fully account for this phenomenon either.

  5. Yes to all of this. Good grief, that lazy what if move is infuriating. Even “good” historians do it. We still can’t figure out why single electrons are here or there from one moment to the next and somehow the whole past that actually happened is not enough of a challenge to work out. Or rather, the imaginary brain world is so much easier.

    I also don’t want to idealize the teaching and learning process. It’s messy. I too usually have around 70 students a term. You throw them in front of the enlightenment bus and hope it hits them. I’m persistent and all but a few see sooner or later that they’re being asked different questions than they’re used to, and that the usual pat answers aren’t getting rewarded. But they have a lot of intellectual snot to blow out before they can think clearly, and the membranes keep making more. As a teacher sometimes you’re the pollen, and sometimes you’re the kleenex.

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