Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Work It, Don't Walk." Zenmaster Zeke from Zanesville Offers Deadwood Darren A Different Destiny.

In the past day we've heard some more from folks concerning Deadwood Darren. Our first set of comments fairly represented the overwhelmingly positive mail that we had received. Since then, more folks have wanted to think and talk about Darren's $20 bill crumpling scene a little more seriously, and we've chosen this one email to stand for those. It's a thoughtful piece, and therefore will be mocked mercilessly by readers, and we - your poor moderators - will be taken to task for turning this once great site into yet another academic circle-jerk like the Chronicle. Yet, we persevere? Why? Is it the upcoming movie deal? The cash that comes in plain envelopes from our fans? No, it's this new blender of ours, 9 speeds, an ergonomic dial, and a capacity for 96 ounces.


Storming out of class is one thing. Crumpling up twenties and humiliating individual students is another. There are many, many reasons for this, and many things Darren could/should have done differently, but I'll focus on the most obvious failure of pedagogy--Darren's pedagogy--that led to this incident.

It seems from his original post that the reading-drafts-aloud activity is optional, i.e. students are encouraged to volunteer to share their work for feedback, but not technically required to. It's reasonable to expect students to volunteer for something that's good for them--especially if they've volunteered consistently in past semesters--but it is not reasonable to express disgust at their reticence in the face of volunteerism. Dean came to class with the expectation that if he wasn't comfortable sharing a particular draft, he wouldn't have to--hence his repeated, polite refusal when called upon. It's also worth mentioning that there's nothing wrong with calling on students when no one volunteers--but why didn't Darren move on to another student after Dean proved resistant to multiple requests and encouragement?

Students, as I'm sure Darren knows, if he regularly teaches small seminars, even to undergrads, want to please their teachers, and subconsciously invest a great deal in authority figures. There are exceptions to the rule, certainly, but it's not as if Dean told Darren to "Fuck off, old man!" I have a hunch that if Darren had moved on to another "volunteer," he'd have been successful--the embarrassment that builds up in uncomfortable silences tends to be cumulative in my experience. If not the second, the third.

After two or three failed call-ons, I wouldn't fault anyone for ending class prematurely. He should have busted out his "College is Optional" speech, made the lumps in the classroom feel like idiots for wasting their own time and tuition money (the phrase "I get paid either way" appears in my own speech), and dismissed them from the room. I don't know what kind of presence Darren is in his classroom, but when I sit down and say "Dismissed," the room clears. Leaving the room before they do probably evokes all kinds of unnecessary disrespect (I defer to body-language experts), but to me it signifies retreat. Together with the rest of the scene, it suggests incompetence--"I'm not in control of what happens in this room."

Oh, the crumpling of money, the snarky remark, the unwillingness to follow through on letting Dean read his essay... all of that crap is melodramatic, demeaning, and childish, but Darren already knows that. That's why he wrote in to RYS.

The bottom line, to me, is to own your authority. If you ask students to volunteer for something and they don't, revoke their agency. If they won't do it when you ask nicely, and you're not comfortable with the self-imposed cost of their lost opportunity (or you forgot to bring the crossword puzzle), TELL them to do it. Be firm, be patronizing if you must, but don't get hysterical, for this last is a sign of the most exploitable weakness in proffies.

If you don't think this works, try an experiment: next time you're moderating a discussion in a reticent class, ask a question and then stare at a student of your choice. Make eye contact and don't break it. Do not look around the room; do not acknowledge hands that may or may not be raised. Pick a student who never talks. He or she will talk. Professors have vampire-like gaze powers. Work it.