Higher Ed as the Oldest Plantation, Farber, and the Presence of Teachers

This post is going to sound like an encomium for Jerry Farber, and that's because it is. I've never met him, and as far as I know, he's retired from San Diego State University and now teaches at the University of San Diego. But we would do well to reflect upon some of his words. 

Those old enough to have been writing teachers or grad students in the late 60s or early 70s may recall Jerry Farber's infamous, "The Student as Nigger," which was published first in 1968 in the Los Angeles Free Press, then in various other places. It was a kind of manifesto on the way higher education had failed to do what it proclaimed to do, how faculty had failed, how students fail. There's lots to comment on in the essay, the use of the N-word to make a good point by a white, male academic who participated in civil rights work and the lack of response to this rhetorical move at the time (which Mary Rose O'Reilly mentions in her discussion of it in a College English essay in 1989), the plantation metaphor that grounds the essay, and his naming the sexualizing aspects of the student-teacher relationship, but for me, the center of the essay, comes late in his discussion, and it's worth revisiting today, since unfortunately it still applies to us. Farber writes: 
I like to folk dance. Like other novices, I've gone to the Intersection or to the Museum and laid out good money in order to learn how to dance. No grades, no prerequisites, no separate dining rooms; they just turn you on to dancing. That's education. Now look at what happens in college. A friend of mine, Milt, recently finished a folk dance class. For his final he had to learn things like this: "The Irish are known for their wit and imagination, qualities reflected in their dances, which include the jig, the reel and the hornpipe." And then the teacher graded him A, B, C, D, or F, while he danced in front of her. That's not education. That's not even training. That's an abomination on the face of the earth. It's especially ironic since Milt took the dance class trying to get out of the academic rut. He took crafts for the same reason. Great, right? Get your hands in some clay? Make something? Then the teacher announced that a 20-page term paper would be required -- with footnotes. 
At my school we even grade people on how they read poetry. That's like grading people on how they fuck. But we do it. In fact, God help me, I do it. I'm the Simon Legree of the poetry plantation. "Tote that iamb! Lift that spondee!" Even to discuss a good poem in that environment is potentially dangerous because the very classroom is contaminated. As hard as I may try to turn students on to poetry, I know that the desks, the tests, the IBM cards, their own attitudes toward school, and my own residue of UCLA method are turning them off. (6-7) 
The issue: the conditions that grading in the classroom create are dangerous for learning. It's not fairness that's at issue here, although that is a big issue in grading too. The issue Farber highlights is how grading, even evaluation (sans grades), changes our responses to the learning ecologies we are in. It changes teachers as much as it does students. The same non-school analogy (above it is dancing and crafts) has been used by Peter Elbow in versions of his grading contracts that he's shared with me, and that I've used. In Elbow's contract, he starts it by explaining why he won't grade writing, preferring to create a culture and learning environment like a "home studio," a collaborative and encouraging ecology very different from graded ones. 

Today, I think our heaviest problems in writing classrooms have to do with the ways we enact compassion and love, the ways we see diversity and our reactions to it, in the ways we expect our students to do the labors we ask of them, to read, to write in the standardized ways (aka. white, middle class ways). All too often, we don't even care about how students do the work we ask of them. We only care that they give us the product. We demand the product to grade, not the labor. This is the ecology we often create with grades. What else can we grade but the paper, or the exam, or the product that shows they've read, they've written, they've labored, and done so with some kind of results? But we don't really care about the labor, which some call effort. If we did, we'd grade it. We grade what we care about. When we grade, though, we create a harmful ecology, or as Farber suggests, a plantation ecology. We create slaves, and our grades are our whip.

In 1990, Farber wrote a follow-up essay in College English, "Learning How to Teach: A Progress Report." In it, he identifies the grading problem that persists, saying, "[f]or many of our students (and for some of us perhaps), grading constitutes a sort of Marxian base, a bedrock reality, compared to which the actual subject matter itself seems secondary and less real. The grading system tends to drive a class. What it does to students is in great part what 'The Student As Nigger' is all about" (136). And Farber's solution for his own classes? Get rid of grades by using a grading contract system. 

While he acknowledges that contracts don't solve all the problems, or magically make a class or a teacher better. They can open the classroom and writing teacher to seeing and addressing other problems in the classroom, such as seeing the Other, or the power dynamics that may harm learning further, something that O'Reilly laments in her discussion along with love, a part of the issue that she sees in Farber's original discussion. Uneven power relations and love "mess up" her classroom, she says. Farber offers a wonderful response to this and points to the "presence" of the teacher as something worth striving for, perhaps something that can resist the plantation mentality: 
No, we mustn't pretend that we don't have power. I can hardly see how power relations in themselves could be excluded from any notion of community, which is my own understanding of what a class or learning group, at its best, should approach. Nor are they incompatible with "love and admiration." Is love too strong a word here? Perhaps it is. But, though I have often been conspicuously angry at the foolishness of teachers, there have been teachers of mine whom I think I've loved: one whom I saw and heard once for a few hours, and that was all, and enough; one who used to work as a sort of housekeeper half the year and as a visiting professor the other half, moving from one university to another and leaving a trail of students behind her who would write her long letters and for whom she remained more present than the teachers whose classes they continued to attend; one who taught me English poetry and was so overwhelmingly my model of "the professor" that the enormous distance I have had to cover in moving away from him remains as a kind of tribute. (140)
If we are lucky, we all have a teacher or two like these in our pasts, maybe they are the reasons we do what we do -- and that is good, I think. I have more than a few good teachers from my past who have shown me good teaching, good response, kindness, understanding, compassion, and yes, I think, love. How else can I describe my work? I love teaching. I love my students. I don't need them to love me, even though I want for them what I want for my sons, and I want them to have it on their own terms. I want them to change the world for the better. I don't see how grades will help them do these things. 

Like Farber, I continually move away from my past good teachers in various ways as a teacher myself, because I'm not them, and they were mostly white and middle class, two things I was not, and they all graded. I also teach under very different conditions. Those teachers in my past who have exerted the most gravitational pull on me were men, because I grew up in rooms filled with women, and was afraid to talk to men until I was deep into college. I yearned for a father-figure to look up to, one who could be proud of me. What makes these good teachers so present in my own life and teaching is their compassion for me, and their human-ness, their willingness to show their faults to their students. I was not a slave, despite the grades, despite the contradictory messages in the educational system around us. 

So I'm very lucky, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't reflect upon my good fortune. I was a poor, remedial reader, a dad-less, confused kid from the ghetto of Las Vegas, who had some good luck with a few teachers when he needed it most. And all this despite the damage grades did to me early on. All this. What luck!

Perhaps what grading really does, as Farber's words suggest, is fog up the writing classroom, keeping the teacher and his students half obscured, hard to make out. What we see is the fog, the grades. What we can't see is each other, working for each other, doing things, suffering together in the ways that Buddhist philosophy says we all suffer (i.e. "life is suffering"). The fog of grades keeps us (teachers and students) from each other, keeps us from seeing how we work for each other. So I try each day, each semester or quarter, to walk in the sunlight or the rain with my students, not in fog. It's hard, because some resist, and that hurts (they are comforted by the fog), but others walk along, and that sustains me. Mostly, I think, it's the compassionate thing to do, to resist the fog, to walk in the clear of the day.