Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Going Off-Script

Some of my favorite moments in teaching came when students went off-script.  I’d ask a question expecting either a particular answer or an answer within a fairly predictable range, and the response would be so far removed from anything I expected that I’d have to improvise.  Those moments were fun, partly because they forced me to think on my feet, and partly because the rest of the class would immediately perk up to see if I could hit the curveball.

For example, in one American Government class, I was trying to illustrate the concept of interest-group pluralism.  I gave the class about twenty minutes to caucus amongst themselves prior to voting on who should get an extra five points added to their exam grade.  There were a few ground rules: no threats of bodily harm, no exchange of money, no sexual favors. The first few times I ran that exercise, a few students would quickly figure out -- having done the reading -- that they could form an interest group and all agree to vote for one person within the group; by pooling their votes, they could increase their chances.  We’d hold the election, someone from the organized group would win, and I’d point out that a small group that organized itself could beat a much larger group that didn’t. So far, so good.

Then came the class that wouldn’t cluster.  None of them did the “let’s form an alliance” thing, instead only bouncing off each other like pinballs.  A young woman won. When I asked her to explain her winning strategy to the class, she sort of shrugged, and said -- and this is a direct quote -- “I just sat here, looking pretty.”


After a beat of silence, I explained what I thought would happen, and why.  Then, happily, I somehow had the presence of mind to explain that in the absence of organization, candidates fall back on charisma.  Bullet dodged. Some of the sharper students seemed to appreciate the save. The moment was more memorable, and probably more effective, for being spontaneous.

I saw an off-script moment this week that could have really gone somewhere.  

Brookdale hosted a community meeting at its center in Long Branch.  Long Branch is the most racially and economically diverse location we have.  It has a large Brazilian population, as well as a large Spanish-speaking population from several Central and South American countries.  The meeting featured a panel of adult students who had immigrated as adults. Some spoke Portuguese as a first language and some spoke Spanish.  All of them visibly struggled with English, though they were able to make themselves understood. All were women, and all had gone through at least some coursework at Brookdale.  

The moderator passed the mic down the row, asking each women whether she felt like she had the same educational opportunities as her native English-speaking classmates.  He was clearly trying to highlight the extra obstacles the women faced, in hopes of spurring us to clear as many obstacles as we could for other prospective students in similar situations.

But they went off-script.  Each one said, without hesitation, that she felt like she had all of the same opportunities as their native-born counterparts.  If anything, they seemed a little surprised at the question. The moderator didn’t know what to do with that.

It was a missed opportunity for a much more interesting conversation.  At one level, of course, the women were right; nobody blocked them from enrolling, and they were able to achieve what they had wanted.  But it would be implausible to pretend that they didn’t face extra obstacles.

I started to wonder about the function served by the belief that they didn’t face extra obstacles.  The venue perhaps didn’t lend itself, but I would have liked to see the conversation go that way.
Would too much reflection on the many obstacles they faced have been dispiriting, and therefore demotivating?  Did they ascribe their extra struggles to themselves as individuals, rather than to the college? Were they consciously trying to preserve a sense of agency, or did they simply define the question differently?

Their response reminded me slightly of the different ways that students at DeVry reacted to postmodernism, as opposed to the way that students at Rutgers did.  The Rutgers students didn’t enjoy the prose style -- I couldn’t blame them for that -- but they saw some value in showing that power operates in subtler and more complicated ways than we often assume.  Some of them were able to apply it to dilemmas in their own lives. Even if it didn’t lend itself to obvious solutions, it at least offered some context for things that otherwise seemed natural and fixed.

At DeVry, though, the students saw it as defeatist.  If power is everywhere, they’d ask, then what’s the point?  Rather than making the world more legible, it made the world more overwhelming.  They needed to clarify, not to “problematize.”

The key difference, I think, is that the Rutgers students took for granted that they had some sort of agency.  They were mostly from middle or upper-middle class families, mostly traditional aged, and mostly bound for professional jobs.  The DeVry students were mostly working-class and down, mostly in their mid-twenties and up, and deeply skeptical of anything complicated.  They didn’t assume agency; if anything, they assumed their own powerlessness. One group assumed it had power, and it saw a more sophisticated analysis of power as useful.  The other group assumed it didn’t have power, and saw complicated analyses as putting it ever farther out of reach.

The students on this panel weren’t interested in telling us how hard it was.  They were interested in celebrating the fact that they got to do it at all. The moderator was trying to complicate the picture, implicitly assuming the class position of folks on the inside who are trying to throw the doors wider open.  The students were just happy that they got in at all.

We didn’t have that conversation, which is too bad.  These women were clearly bright, and could have taught us much more if we had asked the right questions.  They didn’t seem to be trolling or pranking at all; given the chance, they might have shared a perspective from which we could have learned something valuable.

Alas, improvisation is hard.  The moment passed. But the accidental revelation of a very different way of looking at the world suggested that there’s much more work to do to understand where our students are coming from.  The obstacles they face are real, but so is the need to feel powerful enough to overcome them.