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ON BEING THE GOOD ENOUTH TEACHER: SEX, AUTHORITY, AND PATRONIZING YOUR LOCAL TABERNACLE CHOIR
Interactions between students and teachers always take place within a specific force field constituted by local dominant belief systems, which may differ markedly from the beliefs of individual teachers, and from claims to honor abstract inquiry, critical thinking and skepticism about absolutes. That inevitably uneven disposition of local versus official powers puts students at risk for misunderstanding terms of conversation that are legible in bracketed academic discourses, puts minority student groups at risk of unequal acknowledgment within the dynamic that opposes an institutional to a locally dominant perspective, and especially puts teachers at risk of blindness to their own positioned assumptions of superiority. Thus when teachers are on what is always majority students' own hegemonic turf, especially when they encounter the religious differences of self-contained groups marginalized in national contexts, they may tacitly dismiss such beliefs and the capacities of students who hold them. Such local conditions for learning may create blindness to the professional responsibility to encounter students as equals in regard to any form of belief. Teachers thus may betray the pedagogic call to focus on the knowledge base they profess and creating receptive attitudes in classrooms as appropriate contexts for their interactions with students.
I’m sitting on an extruded metal bench, after my two-hour cultural studies class, drinking coffee—obviously, to catch up. One of the students in the class has asked to see me, so he is sitting there too, telling me he wants to write a paper analyzing two chapters of the Book of Mormon, which proclaim the importance of literacy and the preservation of documents. He tells me that these two chapters involve a death. A man’s life is sacrificed for the preservation of sacred texts. I tell him that he cannot write about this topic unless he imagines his readers as the many atheists, Catholics and Protestants in our class, not only me, a Lutheran. Discussing how discrete groups might investigate literacy practices in their communities, these classmates already complain about the use of time in a public university for acknowledging precisely where we are: in Salt Lake City, with a view of “The Church” that many feel crowding other landscapes. I ask, for those of us with other topics in view, can the Book of MormoN be an interesting text?
I like the student’s project. I have been writing an essay about how the directive in the nineteenth-century Book of Mormon that enjoins the Latter-Day Saints to keep daily journal records imitated a concurrent establishment of the New England bias in literary and historical studies. There too, sacred literary texts are discovered and separated from popular “culture,” to establish canonized “high” and corrected instructional “low” categories (for instance, see Levine, 1988). Our class has explored, among others, the indigenous literacy practices of what many non-LDS Utahans call “the culture”: social, political and recreational discourses that enact the local dominant religion. But I also in this moment recall moving to Utah and suggesting journal keeping for the University Writing Program’s courses. I was told that such an assignment would seem odd to many students. Literate Mormons do usually keep daily journals, diaries, day timers and scrapbooks and regularly compile copious files of their family medical, dental, school, tax, and purchase records. They habitually compose check lists, long- and short-term goals, progress reports about meeting those goals—as often and regularly as some scholars in Writing Studies theorize that such writing develops consciousness and cognition. Thus even if the instrument of writing pedagogy I imagined myself importing to the desert had not already been preempted there, any of my suggestions would have been based on comprehensive unfamiliarity with this culture. I only gradually, usually by chance, learned relevant facts, for instance that the same journal-keeping students make their first speeches in church at about age 6, and in adolescence may meet about 5 hours a week in seminary lessons, learning to speak persuasively as teachers. What I took to be my expert academic knowledge of uses of writing and rhetoric is in this place indigenous practice and precept, a way of life whose value the academy does not, it turns out, own. So when I am asked (as I often have been) how “someone like me” survives Utah, I smile. As a teacher and scholar mapping writing as cultural practice, I could be in few better places.
I doubt, however, that this question is referenced to how living in Utah fits my scholarship. In global, multicultural awareness, it tacitly asks what it means to teach in a locale that is so decidedly “Other.” Thus responses to what I take to be sub-textual premises that evoke that question may help to examine what I think of as a “teacher-function” (following Foucault), a cultural production of relationships in which a “good teacher” and “good student” are analogous to an elevated Author and, at least in our time, a grateful if dependent, never entirely confident-of-meaning, Reader.
Of course such teacher/student models emerge in specific historical circumstances. Their qualities are locally nuanced, especially insofar as specific dispositions of status in political and social realms determine the perceived worth of their certified expertise. We usually forget this relativity, confidently assuming that the knowledge that grounds our work as teachers and scholars follows not a local but a universal, even transcendent, Hegelian path, taking it simultaneously through and above material history. These are the trails followed by Latter Day Saints, who simultaneously make spiritual and material property of their lives in daily records, and of those of us who think that journals are universally beneficial ways of learning, not native practice.
Of course, an analysis that considers parallel paths joining Good Teacher and Good Student to Author and Reader necessarily implies that various historic constructions of Authors who are imagined to control meanings of written language are also relevant to shifting social constructions of those who teach that equally varying prestige among graphic performances. Such an analysis thus admits that recognized ownership of written language has a long, variable history determined by discrete intersections of patronage, the material unity of a text, specific technologies for writing it and the accessibility and culturally distributed legibility of texts. Roger Chartier (1994), notably not following Foucault, points out that writing itself is constituted by phenomenal circumstances in which authors have been assigned versions of that ownership. He points out that medieval vernacular manuscripts that were compiled, copied, glossed, annotated, and, at times, took their authority from a named writer, as did Petrarch’s sonnets (1994: 58; see also Minnis, 1984). These varieties determine what it means to be writing in a specific time and circumstance, just as Sydney’s 1595 Defense of Poetry revitalizes ancient poetic authorship by recognizing that “the poet only, only brings his own stuff, and does not learn a conceit out of a matter, but makes matter for a conceit” (1966: 58).
This is to emphasize as well that the model Good Teachers who are assigned vernacular textual didacticism in local circumstances are themselves variably constructed. Of course, pedagogy retains common topics applied to and by the ancients—for instance, rigor, discipline, coverage, originality, moral improvement, developmental progress and the installation of eloquence that marks both power and status. And as evidence of how textual performances are gauged makes clear, those who are designated Authors appear in many guises. Thus accurate histories of the cultural work of teaching and of writing are not the essentialized Great-to-Great transmission chronicles that refer these identities to Socrates or to relatively inspired authorial access to aestheticized Truth. Specific subjectivities fit specific educational cultures whose emphases accumulate without replacing tropes of learning or consciousness of audience and purpose over time. Examples of those identities derive from the sociability of texts, so that sacred esoteric texts invoke the inspired interpreter; Sidney’s renaissance vernacular author resides in a continuing fifteenth-century debate that pits rhetorical pedantry for the sake of rigor and eloquence against fostering trained insight into meanings; the newly self-conscious early modern Individual requires the emotional training into Taste of a new, potentially anarchic reading public; the mass schooling of post-revolutionary Europe ultimately makes a public project of monitorial religious and tutorial schooling that substitutes for the gentleman individual a differently “trained” citizen. In mass education defined by the nineteenth-century Common School, that supervision of citizens is realized in a social manager/teacher of functional writing and literature-for-life, a figure retained even now, despite post-twentieth-century confusion about what counts as the vernacular of multi-lingual globalism.
That retained identity, equally a compilation and a sign of its times reenacts many forms of educational largesse, early and late: training of ancient Greek and Roman slaves in craft literacy, the habit of including in family tutorials all the children on an estate in Renaissance England, Agnes Lee’s required lessons in letters for the slave children at Arlington, Sunday schooling for factory children in London. The noblesse oblige that chooses recipients of education from outside the elite in these settings is at the least traced in democratic pedagogic mandates as a charitable responsibility to equip children of the masses for employment in a machine age, as for its required social arrangements (see Miller, 1995).
This subtextual generosity in public schooling for the masses survives in the tacit understandings of cultural power that are revealed in anxious jokes about how “someone like me” thrives in Utah. The issue, of course, is authority, perhaps the most tightly woven and thus most troublesome thread through an otherwise always-unraveling fabric of pedagogy. That is, perhaps especially in higher education now, American public schooling in language and literature also reenacts progress across various dispositions of the social apparatus of schooling. On the post-secondary level, Harvard’s late nineteenth-century gate-keeping Regents’ Exam identified a “new student” admitted in a market economy. The new Good Teacher of that student, which the Exam necessarily created as a teacher of composition, thus emerges just when Freud is compiling notes on hysteria. That is, at least emblematically, that Good Teacher assumes the position of a blurred Nurse/Maid/Mother figure, the domestic servant who had taught, corrected and responded to a child’s home language under the aegis of retained Oedipal seduction stories (see Kittler, 1990). This new version of a mythologized teacher-function thus neatly completes attempts of philological literary criticism to protect itself from the educational encroachments of Science by emphasizing its masculine rigor. But it also complements the equally mythologized inadequacy of new post-secondary students. Universities concurrently regularize their procedures to become homes away from home, where Good Teachers in all fields assume parental responsibilities, enforcing monitorial regulations and socializing students into new discourses of commerce that replace the biological family’s norms and goals in the center of students’ self-identification. In sum, aided by new composition requirements, relatively novel “English” separates those who already know how to find fit interpretations of its sacred texts from apprentices to that entitlement, those who do not intuitively fulfill their teachers’ desires.
Literary English hereby adds evaluative muscle to already corrective domestic beginnings. Thus it is unsurprising that like the spousal working partners of early American patriarchs who in industrialized economies suddenly become essentially feminine and are conveniently secluded the new solitude of a domestic sphere, early mythologized Mother-teachers of the vernacular become in mass education essentially domestic, unranked and actually underpaid women, who consort with helpless graduate students. Without professional standing, these mother-teachers of both sexes live on, in the basement where servants to the rich and promising do, in both senses, “belong.”
With gratitude to feminism, we notice that at the least, elevators have been installed that reach that basement. Composition as a recognized field now more often joins literature and contemporary cultural studies, as a result of a new, affiliative rhetoric that persuades these companions not of the worth of its early quasi-scientific, predictive behavioral research paradigms, but of its access to still mysterious computers. These tools that have created new writing processes, easy communication and novel teaching environments provide those in composition studies with yet another alien expertise. Thus with new venues for publication about the history and theory of writing, those who easily deploy these technical tools promote yet another version of a Good Teacher, now claiming entré to a now-generation reality that its counterpart literary priests still often avoid. This contemporary teacher-function thus emerges as a cross-dressed Socrates: incisive, competitive and comfortable with “data,” yet nurturing students into a chummy imaginary “Beyond” where writing may be appreciated for its connections to electronic space, to future employment and to protocols derived from text linguists’ cognitive certainties about readable prose style. These new privileges do not, I would stress, include heightened access to credibly interpreting texts. This version of the Good Teacher carries the pencil of commentary on student papers, but not the sword of justice that designates sacred reading. Its androgynous presence is marked equally by the power and cultural authority of producing scientific and practical discourses and a faintly Marxist “real” of sympathy around abstract gender, race and, sometimes, class—all of which warrant this figure’s different ownership of libratory pedagogy for white suburbanites.
In any manifestation, however, pedagogic and thus institutional authority are at stake. These enculturing mothers, fathers and their hybrid contemporary versions have all with good cause assumed a mandate to intrude on students extra-curricular perceptions, intellectually and morally, one first established by Plato’s Republic. But those students are now often adults, delivered and removed not by class or blood ties and social commitments, but by state systems of registration and a calendar. Thus I see this tentative cultural authority from that bench in Utah. There, I wonder exactly how any culturally constructed say-so works as a relation to actual students, in situ. In its most secure form, that authority too easily casts me as a model transmitter of what Hegel called “the alphabet of the spirit,” as a patriarchal endorsement of transcendent knowledge. Yet especially from the perspective of that Utah bench, I also see how this figure depends on unquestioned acceptance of a socially sanctified mission that demands that I inculcate in students both Hypertext and what Jane Tompkins calls “whatever ideals we may cherish” (1990: 656).
Obviously, the conjunction of that demand with my seat on that steel becomes very uncomfortable. There, as Harold Bloom (1993) says in The American Religion, Mormonism is in many ways a representation of "the American persuasion, however, muted or obscured, that we are mortal gods. . . ." (103). As I have experienced that phrase, "moral gods," Mormonism joins sexual reproduction and authority, the topics of my sub-title, but not locally accepted explanatory tropes. A shunned people, murdered in Missouri after they refused to accept slavery and a Missouri "Compromise," or any concession, about their inspired practices, they have been and remain an absorbed "Other." As Bloom (1993) also says, "Granted Mormon group loyalty and self-discipline, . . .your economic and political potential become something substantial enough to alarm others. But if your . . . Prophet, Seer, and Revelator also restored patriarchal marriage customs, then indeed your capacity for disturbing the conventional became extraordinary" (103) Mormons in Utah—named as “this is the place” by an arriving Brigham Young—now with rare exceptions married to only one spouse at a time, live in a culture based on these tenants. They believe that their Temple unions may produce married males and females who, with hard work and sensitivity, become gods and goddesses (Snow, 1983:14). Jesus, a child of God and thus a brother in this system, progressed to Earth, as they may progress through eternity to join descendants and ancestors elsewhere, where elements of their current status (“sociability”) will prevail (Mormon Doctrine, 130:2). But it is equally important that in this system, God is Intelligence. Ninety percent of Utah children graduate from high school (Census Bureau), if only the national average of about 25% from college.
At any educational level, students are plentiful. Potentially divine couples bring to body as many waiting souls as they can love. Children consequently learn gratitude for incarnation, acknowledging enormous responsibilities to their bodies and to their families, duties that preclude their participation in the extended infantilization of bourgeois American childhood, as they also make impossible approval of my post-class cup of coffee. Mormonism, that is, is entirely embodied and entirely patriarchal. Loyalty to this religion, as you might infer, is absolute, for separation from it is eternal disaffection from a family, not from an abstract, more difficult to imagine God. Social belonging—fitting in—consequently is also a sanctioned value among people whose identity is not individualistic, but deliberately derived from a group. As Bloom also says, “the Mormons, like the Jews before them, are a religion that became a people” (quoted in “Church of the West”, C.5.2). Thus theorists might see the Mormon community as a model of collaboration and collective consciousness, were these theoretical interests not tempered in Utah by what Stuart Hall calls the bourgeois “tiny family man” inside our heads (1988: 21).
I do not want you to forget me on that bench as I elaborate that point, always with that student and his intriguing project on indigenous literacy, drinking that coffee, and wondering how to be his Good, Mother/Father Teacher. Yet as is obvious in our classroom, I cannot be his Mother, a surrogate goddess. I cannot be Father. But more important, I cannot even complete what Ian Hunter, in Culture and Government, calls the dyadic teacher-student couple, the cooperative pair who mutually reinvent students of English as self-monitoring, always self-conflicted instruments of their own conformity to bourgeois individualism (1988: 67). I have neither a physical nor cultural influence that is embodied by the Saints who comprise a Quorum of 12 Apostles and the First and Second Quorums of the 70. I am not, that is, a local General Authority. Nor am I likely to shape higher, more insightful moral values in my students, whose care of the body, inventive interpretation of the human condition, and sacrifices for the good of a community were well established long before my teacherly “I” discovered Utah in the 1980’s.
Like my mythic Hegelian forebears and renovated idealistic contemporaries in the teacher-function, I can offer information about rhetoric and composing processes. But my students already have been taught the three other elements of the social technology that English courses were, at least in Hunter’s view, instituted to replace when religious controls of mass populations decayed. That is, they learn elsewhere to judge their language performances against formal—or sacred—standards, so they already have a sense of self-critical inadequacy. They also have an illusion of freedom when they write culturally encouraged, closely monitored self-expressions in those journals. Their parents and family already are Hunter’s “special teachers.” Other than a still honored nineteenth-century provision of access to official national culture through consecrated literary and historic texts, a Good Teacher has little to offer them. Yet that mission is not, after all, small potatoes.
I highlight these conditions of my inadequacies as a Good Teacher to emphasize precisely how that particular local does matter, especially in reference to the third term of my title, “patronizing your local tabernacle choir.” It is easy enough to take for granted superiority to this dominant culture whose legislature employs me, thereby validating my alien-resident work toward literacy and, if peripherally, the preservation of documents. Forgetting my valued local friends, I might in my anxiety about these matters call Utah a space-age carnival, a thrown-away, throwback, repressive artifact of the covered wagon and of better directions than those the Donner Party followed. As Bloom (1993) says of these pioneers, it is plain why every locale they entered ran these sexually and materially acquisitive believers out of town. But, much more importantly, it is equally evident that the culture that recruited, houses, pays and professionally encourages me does not project the liberal ideology honored by my academic cultural studies, nor defer to the condescending gaze I might project as an official state interpreter. My eagerly imported colleagues and I are politically powerless against an organized majority. We are less committed than it is to our different goals, no more inclined than our students are to write every day, and often ignorant of the history and beliefs of many of the students we teach. My field, Writing Studies, cannot here claim to have originated uses of writing as a way of learning and developmental progress, nor delude itself that it has been public education in advanced literacy that gives voice to this marginal group or its powerful social and political visions. As another student in this class of unremarkably excellent English majors explains to me, he does learn from readings and discussion. But he also feels deprived by his circumstances: “This class is too alike to teach each other much about culture.” I try to keep his view in mind at political rallies and meetings of the Modern Language Association.
But to patronize is not only to indulge in the critique that I have just presented. It is also to engage in an exchange, to be a client, a patron who invests. It is with this implication, precisely in the local interactions that gather my identity and that of my students, that I would like to close. Obviously, Utah is very unlike your local. To universalize its idiosyncrasies would deflate the energy of my very immediate point. Yet “fear of Utah” is quite general, as the questions I am so frequently asked suggest. The messages implied by any anxiety about our differences from, and differences with, local student cultures tell us that emerging visions of a newly idealized teacher- function, a new Good Teacher, warrant attention.
At least I infer that Utah’s closed, stable self-possession evokes fearful condescension because its students already claim entitlements to a dominant discourse. They already engage language actively and take actions through discourse in their owned versions of merged self- and community interest. Yet perhaps this very general anxiety about holding classroom authority, a favorite topic of late-twentieth-century theory, could be redirected. If not enacted as condescension, that anxiety might stimulate a shared recognition that my particular situation—insofar as I have neither Socratic, parental, nor cultural authority in relation to the students I teach—is both a fortunate fall and, especially, not uncommon. Few of us have much chance of precipitating crises of authority like those that many imagine to result from institutionalized liberations; tossing one’s pencil to a class, as Jane Tompkins’ did in her often imitated symbolic release from repressive powers, is in my experience as likely to be taken as a sign that I need more sleep as it is to be seen as resignation from official authority. And the staged laboratory versions of actual social conflicts often characteristic of imported liberatory pedagogy rarely result in either the new consciousness or the social activism that feminists and visionary critical pedagogues have expected might follow from them. Even when a great deal of on-campus energy results, it often remains circumscribed by its local circumstance. I suspect that even when not instructing relatively homogenous classes like mine, few teachers have in fact rejected for themselves their students’ typical desires to achieve recognition among other bourgeois individuals. At least my colleagues and I usually praise traditional marks of sanctified “intelligence,” at least with enough conviction to prevent us from devising radical pedagogic techniques that might in fact create decisively new values in our classes. If nothing else, our discomfort with the local verifies this strong claim, for it is often manifest only in easy satires of local values and habits. Many are as I once was, a believer in my universally applicable cultural authority, and, unlike me, many can still almost sustain that myth.
In sum, Utah has taught me to consider the implications of my formerly unquestioned entitlement to superiority and control, lingering still in the universalizing “we” I have un-self-consciously used here. Despite my earnest translations of that desire into professional
“responsibility,” Utah has taught me how simultaneously jejune and aggressive it is to refer to “my student,” “my class,” and recipients of what “I” do as a teacher, as though sanctioned pedagogic capitalism makes of students my cultural property. In Utah, from any of its benches, such possessive language is also unfortunate because it contains no acknowledgment of possible exchanges with students’ history, their beliefs, and their culture’s habits. That discourse instead casts me as a speaking owner/manager, an “I” who controls people and resources, the Columbus who discovered my own personal Utah and who can remain untouched by its voices, desires, purposes, and relative—but not unusual—autonomy. In that frame, talk about teaching as only “what I do,” an agency of outmoded pre-terror discourse, assures only institutional collegiality, the texture of superiority to local circumstance. But it is also now only a fascia around students’ multiple access to skilled composing; perhaps also around the many other sites of learning they take for granted beyond our certified gaze.
Nor is it possible, in actual Utah or in the widely feared student/ cultural autonomy it symbolizes, to imagine that changing the content of any curriculum is a political intervention in local desires. That is, I cannot pretend that my supposedly libratory assignments of multi-cultural texts or my diversity-oriented classroom processes are neutral as against the local agendas of many students. In the Utah everyone fears, as in the one where I teach, no course content, no unruly woman, and no transgressive standpoint actually threaten dominant culture. We all live on the street named Harm’s Way when we encourage specific and practical ways to diverge from local cultural norms, so we rarely do so. Abstract, historical instances of injustice and inequity inspire almost everyone’s emotional identification with a projected downtrodden, so they are the usual currency of the backstreet exchanges in which we retain that almost successful cultural authority.
I am obviously claiming that in our own personal Utah, we share anxiety about many unraveling socially constructed identities, especially those we witness as the deaths of Father, and of Mother, teacher. Insofar as we also share the alienation that results when we are distracted from universal authority yet still just outside the circle of local powers, we now have no stable way to imagine a purpose for teaching and thus no easily portable educational equipment. Nonetheless, at least in Utah, we might have hope based precisely on that recognition. The death of the teacher may re-align pedagogy, if not in an ultimately patronizing, staged equality between my ideals and those of my students, nor in an artificially construed parity between my expertise and their expression. Instead, we might mingle our cultures with theirs, studying privileged and common texts that constitute local matters about which we often stay studiously ignorant. Precisely where mythical teacher/student identities and linguistic access to them meet local exigencies, we might uncover with students their own personal Utah: local investments in discourses of sameness and difference, of inclusion and exclusion, of authority and submission. As I have been emphasizing, our expertise confesses that cultures are many diverse practices. To accept the local implications of that diversity might foster the curiosity that marks both fluent participants in local reasons and a new, now realistically “good enough,” teacher.
Bloom, Harold (1993) The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster.
--- (2002) ‘Church of the West’. The Economist, 2 February 2002: C.5.2.
Census Bureau Press Release (2000). [Online] http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/census_2000/001585.html.
Chartier, Roger (1994) The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Hall, Stuart (1988) The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. London: Verso.
Hunter, Ian (1988) Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education. London: Macmillan.
Kittler, Frederich A. (1990) Discourse Networks: 1800 /1900. Trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Culens. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Levine, Lawrence W. (1988) Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, Susan (1995) ‘In Loco Parentis: Addressing (the) Class’. In Jane Gallop (ed.) Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 155-64.
Minnis, A.J. (1984) Medieval Theory of Authorship. London: Scholar Press.
Mormon Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
Snow, Lorenzo (1983) Quoted in LDS Church News, 16 January 1983: 14.
Sydney, Sir Thomas (1966 ) A Defense of Poetry. Jan Van Dorsten (ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Tompkins, Jane (1990) ‘The pedagogy of the distressed’. College English, 52 653-60.
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