A few days ago, someone asked me a question that made me stop and think. The person asked, “What do you produce as an English teacher?” The inquisitor did not posit the question in a derogatory manner; in fact, I firmly believe that the person asking the question wanted to legitimately understand what I do as an English teacher at a university. I paused for a second, trying to parse out the question. Then, I responded with a generic answer about critical thinking, knowledge, and projects such as ViralTexts.org. I was not truly satisfied with my answer, and after the exchange, I am still pondering the question, specifically the best way to answer it. Today, I want to take a moment and parse out some of the things I have thought about in regard to what I “produce.”
I think what threw me about the question at first was the word choice, specifically the word “produce.” I understand where this word is coming from because we live in a society, even in the academy, where production is what brings in the money. When I say production, I mean tangible items that can continuously funnel money into a university, company, or community. The word also stems from the ways that some scholars, students, and communities view college education. They perceive college as a vocational launch pad to a well-paying job. However, running counter to this view is the position that college is a place to become a more well-rounded citizen of the community, nation, and the world.
It is with this in mind that I do not want to use the word “produce” in this discussion because it is tied to a position that in order to be useful we must tangibly “produce” something that can achieve monetary value. I reject that view of my position because to me monetary value is not the only thing that matters. If it did, I would have chosen a drastically different career path. Instead of “produce,” I will use words such as “instill,” “create,” “provoke,” or similar ideas.
I see my job as a cultivator of well-rounded citizens. In the classroom, I aim to instill within students a sense of questioning and critical thinking. I want them to understand that they have a right to question the world around them, and through that process, they start to think critically about their position within a broader society. Recently, I had a student who started working on her topic for my composition course. The student chose to explore whether or not schools should be able to punish students (middle and high school) for participating in the National Anthem protests. The student initially disagreed with students having the right to protest; however, after research, the student informed me that her opinions about the subject have shifted. She sees the other side, and she has allowed herself to learn about why students knell and she now thinks, even though she may disagree with the act, that the players have the right to protest in this manner without any repercussions from the school. On a pedagogical level, this is what I do.
On a broader level, I think about the “value” of my research and the affect(s) it may have on others. These thoughts arose partly after reading Erin Bartram’s “The Subliminated Grief of the Left Behind” where she talks about her decision to leave academia. She writes,
“But your work is so valuable,” people say. “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”
Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?
I understand the sentiment here, and I also understand the rhetorical question, “Valuable to whom?” With this, she gets at the crux of a broader discussion about academia, and specifically disciplines such as English, history, and other liberal arts. The academy is a capitalist system that thrives on funds and money. The intellectual labor of the scholar solitary toiling away to reveal some form of “truth” has no monetary capital here. The autonomous vehicles, pharmaceutical advances, agricultural breakthroughs, and on and on and on bring in the funding. I am not saying that these are not important. However, they continually take precedent over what I do as an English scholar. Just look at the constant debates about departments, even English, having to justify their own existence.
I see my role as a scholar in a couple of ways. For one, I see it as an extension of my role in the classroom, invoking people to have them understand different perspectives, to educate, and to hopefully lead them to action. While not necessarily the norm across academia at this point, I see the turn, especially in history, towards public scholarship as an excellent model for showing what we do in these disciplines. Sites such as AAIHS and the Junto are public facing spaces where academics speak to everyone, not just their peers. They are spaces that promote activism and thought, see the Charleston Syllabus for an example. I see myself as part of this. With Ben Railton, I started the #noconfederatesyllabus last fall to provide people with sources that would help them understand what truly happened during Reconstruction.
When I posed this question to a colleague, we went back and forth for a little, especially over the term “produce.” Ultimately, though, he responded by stating this:
I create to some extent, but I think of what I do as activism, for the most part. Audre Lorde said that she stopped going to protest demonstrations because the classroom was a much more fruitful environment for praxis. This doesn’t mean the instructor must indoctrinate students into a particular ideology (like Marxism). The kind of teaching I’m talking about is antithetic to cultural reeducation. I make the classroom a place where students are challenged to think and rethink, and learning how to write well is at the top of the agenda because only through writing in a clear, articulate, informed way can students begin to converse in an intellectual culture. Students need to learn what it means to engage intellectually, to become “organic intellectuals.”
This is how I see myself. I see what I do, both inside the classroom and out of it, as important to the world around us. I see myself as someone who hopefully inspires students, and others, to troll the depths for knowledge. To climb the peaks for truth. Essentially, I want whoever I encounter–in the classroom, in a journal, online, on the street–to walk away more intellectually cultivated then when I initially encountered them. I want them to be able to critically examine the world and to intellectually debate topics without succumbing to logical fallacies or platitudes. I want them to understand that their perspective is not the only one, and I want them to know have an understanding of those who have different experiences than their own. These are the things I hopefully “produce” as an English teacher and scholar.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
I enjoyed your article, Matt. I’ve always thought of myself (whether as a teacher or as a chiropractor) as offering not a product but a service (and in both cases the service comes down to education.) Earlier today I read a passage from Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream, which pertains to your reflections:
“We’re human beings, we’re not automatons. You work at your job but you don’t stop being a human being. Being a human being means benefitting from rich cultural traditions – not just ours but many others – and becoming not just skilled but wise. Somebody who can think – think creatively, think independently, explore, inquire – and contribute to society. If you don’t have that you might as well be replaced by a robot. I think that simply can’t be ignored if we want to have a society that’s worth living in.”
Thanks George. That’s a great quote. Need to use that when answering this question in the future.
Thanks, George, for your helpful comments on intellectual “production,” a word used in French academia as well, for the worse. I am sharing your post with my colleagues of the French Association of American studies, many of whom teach literature.
Thanks. Would love to hear what they have to say as well.