Sunday Salon: On handcuff parties and the nature of the university

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I slept in this morning, and when I made my bleary way downstairs from my dark attic bedroom I was shocked to find a world of white.  There's a particular kind of light that fills my house only during a snowstorm: a sunny day casts a golden glow on all the surfaces, but the reflection off the fallen snow lights my ceilings.  And the light itself is so profoundly colorless: it feels like a film crew has brought a powerful flash and set it off outside my windows, and the whole house is suspended in the moment of the flash.

How was my week?  Well, it mostly revolved around those odd first classes of the semester in which there is little to discuss and much practical work to be done.  I asked one class of students to share (by way of introduction) "the most dramatic thing you've ever done."  Ten minutes later I found myself saying these words: "Dare I ask what - precisely - a handcuff party is?".  

Later that day, I asked my first year students to write and then talk about why we have universities (what purpose they serve for individuals or societies).  Long pause.  Then: "Well, a university degree serves as a filter that lets employers know who should make the first cut in hiring." (It took a long discussion to unpack the implications of that one.)

Then, a second answer: "Universities employ people.  Lots of people around here would be jobless if it weren't for the universities."

"Well, yes," I said, "this is an industry, and it often operates on industrial models."

It wasn't until six or seven answers in that anyone mentioned any intellectual, philosophical, or creative value that the university adds to its community or individual members.  And they might have just come up with those answers to make me feel better.  I probably looked a bit wilted. 

But this is what made the whole conversation so fascinating.  From the point of view of someone who believes in the power of learning to enrich your life in more than just the most literal way, it was pretty distressing, but what struck me was how incredibly clear an economic perspective my students have, even if that economic outlook is (for reasons of cultural context - their generation, their location, etc.) an incredibly bleak one.

Of course, I would prefer my students not see their education as a purely economic transaction - they give money, I give degrees (and thus better jobs).  What is the degree supposed to signify apart from their ability to give money?

We actually got down to this later in the discussion.  A student made a really elegant argument about the place of higher education in both developing and developed countries, and then argued that (as a filter) the university system also serves to filter out people on many other bases than merit or work ethic.  So we spent some time talking about what determines who gets the privilege of higher education. ("How much money you or your parents have." "What your grades are, and what your high school was like." "What kind of scholarship aid you have access to." We didn't even mention "Where you live"....)

Anyway, I just got in from a half hour of spirited shoveling and now I'm settling down to prepare the next three madcap days of classes.  I've got some Ibsen and some Irish Drama to prep, as well as a lecture on the nature of literature and reading as the solving of riddles.  Meanwhile, my book group is coming to me on Tuesday night (I am going to have to sprint to make it back in time from my Tuesday class), so I am torn between the pressures of work, a creeping anxiety about how clean my house may or may not be, and a need to make my way through our chosen book for this meeting - Geraldine Brooks's March, which I am only a few dozen pages into.  

On the blogging front, I have quite the backlog of reviews I want to get written.  (But not today.  No, not today.)  But I've also changed the format of my Reading and Watching Logs on Sycorax Pine: now each listings of a film, book, or play I've completed is accompanied by a micro-review, to ensure that I crystallize my impression of a text before I move on to the next one.  You can always find these logs at the bottom of my new blog design, or by clicking the links above. 

2 Responses so far.

  1. Vasilly says:

    What a great post! As a college student, I feel the pressure all the time about going to school to get a great job so I can buy x, y, and z. I love learning and as long as I have a good teacher and a great textbook, I'm pretty happy. I love all the discussions you are having with your class. Happy reading.

  2. Thanks, Vasilly! I agree- I really sympathize with how hard my students work to afford their education (although I'm always a little incredulous when they talk about how expensive their education is, because it is *so* much affordable than getting a college degree in the states). What's more, the bad economy means that their employers no longer respect the fact that students work in order to afford their degrees - and thus shouldn't be expected to skip class to pick up extra shifts. It's a hard situation to have to face, especially when they are 17 or 18.

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