Why I Teach Here

There’s an excellent piece in New York Magazine about the kinds of students I see in my classes. The reporter, Chris Smith, simultaneously acknowledges and respects the tensions that these students face, in ways far more respectful and mature than the account offered of the behavior of some members of the Hunter faculty.

I’m a far-left liberal. I’ve seen such accounts and such milbashing on WPA and in the discourse of certain subgroups of various professional organizations. And there’s a tension there: after all, I served four years as an enlisted soldier and NCO in the Army’s 24th Infantry Division, and in Marya’s words, “I have a lot of respect for the retired generals who have spoken out against things that are clearly wrong.”

It makes me wonder what friends like Bill DeGenaro might think of my students. I wonder what you might think, reader, after reading that piece: about my reasons for teaching writing, and about why I so admire the students I teach.

Why I Teach Here

8 thoughts on “Why I Teach Here

  • May 24, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    I’m not really sure what I think of your students Mike. What I sense is that they are like a few of my students. It’s just that you have a class full of them. We get students from Fairchild Air Force Base, and a good many students who have recently finished enlistment and/or deployment. As a rule, they are more politically conservative, but not always. Because they tended to be on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, they have a different perspective, I’m sure, than students in training to be officers who, for the most part, I’m guessing haven’t had anyone try to kill them yet. Those experiences have inculcated a certain skepticism in them. Still, I can handle the political conservativism in my students, and I love the skepticism, if they are motivated to work hard and follow my advice and direction and they are willing to engage ideas they may disagree with.

  • May 25, 2007 at 12:35 am

    My internet provider is crapping out on us, so I’ll be terse, just in case it throws me off mid-idea.
    Your students–hmmm, they strike me as being more somber than most, but that makes sense–my students aren’t worrying about being sent to war. I think they’re lucky to have you as a professor because I think that you are not only brilliant but able to communicate ideas (especially) new ones, in a way that indicates you understand where their confusion may lie. Your own experience in the army, I think, lends credibility to your perspective.

    And, I have to ask, has that young female cadet gotten any feedback for her odalisque pose in the photos? I was appalled to see it–felt like she was being taken advantage of in posing that way.

  • May 25, 2007 at 11:54 am

    There are a lot of rumblings all over the place about Marya’s pose: I hadn’t thought it possible to look provocative in any Army uniform, but she makes clear that isn’t so. She’s gonna get shit from the Cadet chain of command for it, and from the Academy — but you know what? She graduates tomorrow. She’s done with this place. She’s got something coming out in the annual Best American Poetry series, and she’s won some big awards here, and tomorrow she’ll throw her hat in the air after Dick Cheney talks at the stadium and she’ll trade her greys for Army green, and she won’t have to worry about whether or not all the hierarchies at this place think being provocative is appropriate.

    That goes to both your and Bradley’s comments, I think, and the idea of decorum: soldiers and soldiers-to-be are going to be, yes, more serious than their civilian student peers. That seriousness, that gravitas, is an asset, but sometimes we privilege it too much, and forget how human students like Marya are. I’m glad she rattled some folks with that photo, and I hope she continues to rattle folks. The Army needs officers like her.

  • May 26, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    On the one hand…West Point doesn’t seem like the kind of job we strive for (I say that, though, my uncle is a grad from West Point)…we don’t think about military places of higher education…so your experiences are fascinating.

    And on the other, I can speak as a former soldier as well – though from a different army. Folks in the army are people, too. Some write poetry. Some sew. Some are into art. Some are into cars. West Point is different, obviously, because of the kind of college it is. But guys I served with – in tense moments, in tense places – had interests in all kinds of things. And the interests were the important things in their (and my) lives. They were hardly out for blood. They weren’t conservative either (or most weren’t). Then again, they were drafted; they didn’t volunteer like Americans.

  • May 28, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Jeff, can you say more about “the kind of job we strive for”? I mean, I think you’re right: I got some weird reactions at 4Cs the past couple years, and indeed some initial skepticism or even wtf??-type reactions. But then, on the other hand, I feel like: I teach college writing. I’ve been one of the prime initiators of profound curricular change, and worked hard to get our program’s theory and pedagogy out of current-traditionalism and into leading-edge best practices. So yeah — I agree, I’m teaching at a place that a lot of folks in composition would want to have nothing to do with. But I’m making a difference here, and that’s what feels so important and so key to me. I had some choices when I did my first job search, and despite my occasional frustrations, I’m happy with my choice: I’m contributing something that the students I teach wouldn’t otherwise get if I hadn’t come here. Being out of my comfort zone — being in tension — is, I think, a good thing. A productive thing.

    And, yeah, as folks who served, you and I know quite well the humanity and heterogeneity of soldiers that sometimes others find all too easy to dismiss. At the same time, though, I think there are considerable political differences between a conscript Army and a volunteer Army, including the priorities of volunteers. That again sometimes sets me in tension — but at other times, to paraphrase Professor Winkle’s estimation of Mark, these kids have the biggest hearts of any students I’ve ever met.

  • May 28, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    Interesting piece from nymag. I agree that the writer does a good job of diving into some really fascinating tensions–tensions that are too often ignored and over-simplified in representations in the popular press and elsewhere.

    And thanks for the invitation (I *think* it was an invitation) to share what I think about the work that you do with your student body. (Sorry that I’m resonding days later, too…been working under a deadline.) I hope that I haven’t given you the impression that I think poorly of your students–or your work, for that matter. But I’ve been involved in public actions protesting U.S. intervention in Iraq, and I’ve blogged about that involvement, so I see why you might wonder what I think about West Point, or the students there, or the notion of working there.

    Based on reading your blog regularly as well as reading that nymag story, a first thought is that your students sound extremely committed and extremely motivated. Sounds like many have a particular set of goals and objectives and work very very hard to meet said goals. As others have pointed out, sounds like a lot of students at other kinds of institutions that we know. And yet, that committment is perhaps more intense, more deeply held, more profound in terms of the effect that said committment has on day-to-day life (I think of your posts that refer to the discipline, the “yes sir,” etc.). The whole ‘gravitas’ thing you mention.

    I can understand your motivation to work with students with “the biggest hearts,” a phrase I take to mean motivated, affected by their worlds, committed. Why do you admire your students? I suspect it’s because they’ve chosen to intervene in ways that matter, ways that put themselves in peril.

    Many in the culture, I think, draw reductive and inaccurate conclusions about others, so it was especially interesting to read what you and Jeff have said about the heterogeneity of soldiers. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with a guy at my church who just got back from Iraq. (actually, he does much of the talking). And his ideas about the war, about foreign policy, about timetables for withdrawl, don’t fit into partisan categories, or pro-con dichotomies, or any other schema. He’s got lots to say, based on his experiences, his opinions, his religious beliefs, etc, etc. He’s got some pretty “radical” ideas. Some things that he says are pretty mainline. A lot of what he says probably doesn’t fit in with what many (in academe, on the wpa listserv, probably in the culture-at-large) would expect to hear from a soldier just back from a tour. Some people are shocked to learn that Alice Cooper is an avid golfer in the conservative suburbs of Phoenix. Some people are surprised to learn, given what they think they know about my ideology, that I’m an active Catholic and spent five years in the seminary. But the brush is probably even broader when it comes to representing the military–like it’s okay to be reductive, to speak in myths and generalities: ‘poor kids volunteer for service because they don’t have any other options,’ and so on.

    I suspect that most of your students give a shit about the world in a way (“a way” meaning they DO something that’s hard) that many don’t. In that sense, it’s not at all hard to see why you admire them. I share that admiration for the engagement and committment. The “tension” comes in here: I’m against the Iraq war and I actively and vocally oppose it. Know what? I’m actively and vocally against a lot of things that corporate America is doing, too, and that’s where many of MY students are headed (and where most of them HOPE to end up). It’s not my job to change their minds. But it IS my job to help them understand and theorize and use language in a variety of contexts. Within that understand/theorize/use rubric, we end up complicating assumptions and challenging received wisdom. So sometimes (often, I think and hope) my work at my institution ends up shaking things up for the students.

    Maybe–since you are trained in rhetoric and culture and teach writing– some of that is true for you too, at W.P. And maybe–because your institution has a particular, more focused, mission–some of that is not true for you at W.P. Sorry to blather on so long…

  • May 29, 2007 at 10:04 am

    Sorry, MIke. I, in no way, meant it as a bad thing. “The strive for..” only suggested that military institutions are often not on job candidates or grad students’ radar when they think about the kind of places they will work at. It’s very interesting to hear what teaching writing at West Point is like. And anyway, as noted above, I have West Point connections: my uncle attended and my dad was the South Florida recruiter for many, many years.

    All I can say about being in combat situations is: most people I was with (me, too) would have preferred a peaceful situation to the one we were in.

  • May 29, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Totally understood, Jeff, and like I was trying to suggest, I agree about being not on the radar.

    Bill, it was very much an invitation — I read your posts about protesting the U.S. intervention in Iraq with considerable interest. I agree with your point about the overly broad brush, and like you, I see one part of my goal/mission as being that shaking things up for students — and, yes, actually I want to get the writing program here even more focused on the challenging assumptions and complicating received wisdom component of understanding, theorizing, and using language. We don’t do enough of it here, and I want to see us doing more, especially when it has the potential of very literally being a matter of life and death.

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