Monday, February 18, 2008

It's about objectivity, g*d damn it!

Unquestionably the largest obstacle to successful teaching that I face is the gulf of difference that separates my students from me. I'm not just talking about the "stranger in a strange land" syndrome that many academics face when teaching in areas with different political, social, or cultural assumptions than their own (though I certainly experience that, here in Hawtch-Hawtch). What I'm really talking about is the difference between students (or, at least, most students) and faculty. Students in general are, I would argue, different from their instructors because the assumptions that guide the one group are often very foreign to the other. And, of course, it works both ways.

One of my standard assignments in Comp II is a detailed analysis of a film. I always have a difficult time choosing a film to show in class, for both pedagogical and cultural reasons. I want to show a film that will lend itself to the kind of analysis I expect students to engage in, but I also want to avoid films that might offer...shall we say, cultural difficulties. Because I know, for example, that sexuality is something of a hot-button issue around these parts, I generally avoid showing films with much nudity or explicit sexuality. I also would probably avoid, say, the films of Michael Moore. It's not that I'm afraid of exposing students to ideas that challenge their worldviews; it's just harder to analyze a film if you have a strong, negative personal reaction to it or to the ideas in it. So I generally end up with relatively antiseptic films, and this semester was no exception to that rule. I brought in a film that I had shown before in previous semesters. The film is rated PG-13, mainly for mild language and very mild violence. You'd think I'd be on pretty safe ground here.

So I was pretty surprised when a student got up in the middle of class and asked to speak to me outside. He explained that he was very uncomfortable viewing the film because he found the language in it "very offensive." I've been teaching in Hawtch-Hawtch long enough to know what he was talking about. The film contained several uses of the phrase "god damn," which, alone, were apparently enough to set off the alarms in this kid's head.

Now, I'm not in the business of changing students' belief systems. If the student found that word offensive, who am I to argue that it's not that big a deal. Still, whenever I'm faced with a problem like this one, I'm a little uncertain about how to proceed. I don't want to make the student watch a film that he's uncomfortable with, but I also want him to understand that you don't always get to pick and choose the subject matter you study in college. In the end, that was the line I took. I let the student choose a different film, but I spent some time explaining to him why I thought it was important to be able to approach an object of analysis dispassionately. I told him that one of the most important skills I can teach him is to be able to look at things objectively, without letting those things be colored by his personal value system. I talked about the difference between critique and personal response. I even brought up the example of my very close friend, whom I consider to be a brilliant person, even though I disagree with virtually everything he says.

I may as well have been talking to the wall. And I think the difficulty the student had grasping what I was trying to say is simply a result of his being a freshman, probably the first in his family to attend college, in an area that doesn't prize intellectualism very highly (to say the least). In other words, he couldn't understand my academic argument because he doesn't share any of the assumptions that underly the academic world. Maybe he'll get there eventually (though he'll need to stop leaving in the middle of class), but right now, he and I are just different.

NOTE: Here's the punchline to the story above. The student chose to write his analysis over a film that is rated R and which includes lots of graphic violence and a little sexual content as well. Oh, and the film also contains several uses of the phrase "god damn" (along with other such--and worse--profanities). I guess the over-the-top violence somehow renders that phrase less offensive in this particular film.

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