“Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.

In Rancière’s exposition of Jacotot’s revolutionary educational method, it seems we can isolate the two factors that are absolutely required for a teacher: a willingness to keep the student on task and a bullshit detector. Actual knowledge of the subject one is teaching is helpful insofar as one will have a better bullshit detector, but at the end of the day, Rancière seems content that simple common sense will serve well enough to start. I found this argument pretty invigorating when I first read it and still do — but Lacan’s notion of the “university discourse” complicated matters for me. Lacan claims that while knowledge is apparently in the driver’s seat, the real truth of the university discourse is the imperious command to know, a command that drives the students’ endless production. In other words, at the end of the day the university discourse comes down to “Think, pig!”

This demand is insatiable. As with the superego, it’s our very best students who are most punished by it, who get the greatest demands piled upon them more and more. We always detect some vague “potential” in them, the ability to know more, do more, think more, write more. I’ve even been tempted in the past to grade a better student on a different scale, where an A would represent meeting my expectations (and I suspect that I’ve been subjected to that treatment at times in my educational career) — but I’ve also always held back, because those very students are the ones most afflicted with anxiety in my experience (and often women as well, which would take a whole other post).

My students may find me to be a hard grader now, but for me, the standard for an A is basically “what can reasonably be expected at this level of coursework” — in the first-year courses, that means a paper that demonstrates a good understanding of the material, that is free of distracting mechanical errors, and has a clear point and organization. Those standards are difficult for some students due to inadequate preparation, but I think they are achievable, especially given the format of Shimer’s first-year writing intensive courses. Requiring some sense of genuine creativity (as judged by me) seems excessive, although I do sometimes let that kind of creativity make up for other kinds of deficiencies in a paper. Given the punitive financial and career consequences attached to grades in the contemporary setting, it would be unforgivable in my view to pile additional demands on a student who is already meeting expectations.

These concerns become even more pronounced when one reflects that our students are most often engaged in another form of “production” while they’re in school. One would think that in a time of elevated unemployment and amid constant claims that our national future hinges on increasing access to higher education, our society would figure out some way that school could be students’ full-time job — but no, it’s absolutely crucial that during this period of intense learning that they will get only once in a lifetime, students must be wasting their days making coffee or whatever. The very fact that I can describe being a student as a “job” in itself is revealing, though, isn’t it? I wonder if this is how it feels for a boss whose workers have a side-job — surely they must be aggrieved when their workers show up sleep-deprived or don’t have the flexibility to take on any extra projects that pop into their mind!

For me the trump card has always been that the economy out there is sordid and meaningless, whereas I’m doing something meaningful, something of inherent worth. I wonder, though, if the content is enough to make up for the similarity of form — if my call for greater nuance in their understanding of Locke is fundamentally different from the customer who wanted soy in their [I don’t have the energy or frankly the knowledge to come up with a detailed fancy coffee order], if my decision to have a paper due on the same day as a long reading is really a long distance from abruptly giving a worker an extra shift and assuming they’ll “make it work.”

I suppose all I can do is try to mitigate those types of demands, which is something that I’m already doing and that I’m planning to work with my colleagues to coordinate on more (for instance, we’re a small enough school that we can easily confer and make sure that all our major assignments aren’t converging on the same due date). As for the larger question, though, I’m not sure whether there’s anything to be done — I’m in the university discourse whether I want to be or not, and often the disclaiming of that authority can only lead to more exaggerated or even inappropriate demands (like that students should feel that they’re your friend).

More than that, I still believe that there is a utopian dimension to the student’s life that should be treasured and cultivated — the joy of the flash of understanding, the pride and satisfaction of the creative interpretation or the difficult argument well-made. Perhaps the only way to preserve that utopian dimension is to keep it separate from the imperious demand, for instance, to treat the student who far exceeds expectations with a creative paper as an intellectual colleague rather than an intellectual employee. And in turn, perhaps the only way to keep the imperious demand at bay is to give it clear boundaries, to say, in effect, “Here is the grading regime, and it’s my responsibility to hold you to it — but I hope something else will happen, too, something that will let us suspend or at least set aside our student-schoolmaster relationship and meet as thinkers on equal terms.” Ideally, the grading regime would help to clear some kind of space for that other thing, but it strikes me that perhaps one must have a certain pessimism in that regard to keep things within their bounds.

13 thoughts on ““Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

  1. “I’m in the university discourse whether I want to be or not, and often the disclaiming of that authority can only lead to more exaggerated or even inappropriate demands (like that students should feel that they’re your friend)” – isn’t the whole point of Ranciere’s text that the schoolmaster shouldn’t be in the ‘universty discourse’ but in the ‘analyst’s discourse’, to speak Lacanian? Accepting the position of a subject supposed to know, but also always in the process of undermining it: ‘I am not the one who knows, you are!’ – ‘I don’t know what Locke is saying, you do!’
    I think clinical analysts are also confronted with the problem of analysands trying to be their friends as soon as the start deconstructing their role as the subject supposed to know, but this does not mean they should abandon the analyst’s discourse, according to Lacan. Otherwise the analyst would regress to some sort of ego-psychology. And the same must go for the schoolmaster who insists on being ignorant: he is not allowed to just accept the university discourse. His only job is to help the analysand/student discover what (s)he already knows (about her/himself, about philosophy, about the text (s)he just read). The problem, of course, is to maintain some sort of symbolic authority, but still…

  2. I initially did think the Ignorant Schoolmaster position is more akin to the analyst’s, but now I’m wondering whether it could wind up being the boiled-down quintessence of the university discourse — and of course the relationship between the two positions is a complex one.

  3. I like the idea of viewing the grading aspect of a course as a sort of baseline expectation in order to create a space that goes beyond expectations. I hadn’t thought it through as explicitly as you have put it here, in terms of creating an intellectual equality, but it’s a fascinating thought and something that seems to be a step beyond what is called for in the Ranciere. After reading the Ignorant Schoolmaster over break I was determined to emancipate the minds of my history students this semester; unfortunately the reality of the situation is that the class is not filled with people as eager as Jacotot’s Flemish students were. This problem seems to necessitate the existence of a grading regime. I appreciate your comments on this subject.

  4. Reblogged this on My Desiring-Machines and commented:
    As anxiety is setting in over teaching my first class that’s completely of my own design — a class I designed as a seminar but now has 25 students enrolled — I’m especially interested in what others are saying about teaching.

  5. I tend to agree: grading might best serve as merely a baseline. But what about narrative evaluations? I do feel that combining this narrative element with a letter or number grade definitely has the potential to depart from the formal grade and become a different level of evaluation. One common complaint is that students don’t really take these commentaries seriously. But my experience has been that many of them do.

  6. At Shimer we have conferences at the end of the semester where we can give that kind of narrative evaluation to the students in person — and we’re instructed to leave the issue of grades entirely to the side. There are circumstances where they don’t always get to have them (if they’re taking a comprehensive exam, for instance), and there have been many cases where students have tried to schedule them on their own because they value the feedback.

  7. As an undergrad I was in a program (the Residential College, at the University of Michigan) that – when it started in the late 1960s – gave ONLY narrative evaluations. There was a lot of pressure from both the larger university and students, who wanted a GPA on their transcripts, to change it. So, by the time I got there in 2004, they’d made it mandatory for all faculty to give BOTH (a lot of people saw this as a kind of institutional defeat). I was the sort of student who (through a combination of extreme anxiety and hypervigilance) always got A’s… so I never really got much information from my final grades. But I learned a lot from the written evaluations. Sometimes, in spite of the good grade, there would be a pointed comment that was really cutting at the moment but probably helped me in the long term. I give my students a lot of narrative commentary, throughout the term. And, if I’m posting grades regularly on Blackboard, I will attach comments to final grades using that format. But I think the ability to give helpful feedback is definitely related to how many students you have in the classroom in any given term. So, like most aspects of academic life, the best intentions of an instructor are ultimately at the mercy of bigger structural features.

  8. Yeah, Shimer’s in-person system is barely possible with the current size of the institution — I’m not sure whether it will survive if and when the school grows significantly (as they hope to achieve). I give a lot of written feedback on writing, though I’m a bit more piecemeal when it comes to discussion assessment….

  9. Kotsko,
    What is this bullshit about “teaching” “Waiting for Godot?” That is the kind of horse shit they say down at the state school. You aren’t some fucking oracle. You are someone who, as a Shimer facilitator, stands in the way of learning less than some asshole who thinks that they “teach” texts that indeed went straight from the author to the reader. Our students pay a lot of money to marginalize you and get you out of the way of their learning, so save that phrasing for people who indeed “teach” texts – and by that I mean the majority of college professors in this day and age who are addressing students who haven’t read them, and who perhaps haven’t read them themselves.
    If I am mistaken, and you are some fucking oracle, then write a text of your own and I am sure it will find its way into the cannon. But the idea that you are going to “teach” someone else’s text is bunk.
    Perhaps, through some caveat of Rancière’s you have come to believe that your ideas are so fully formed and superior that you should hold them back, lest the innocent minds around you be deprived of the opportunity to incubate free from the obvious truth of your own thoughts. But I doubt that a Shimer class is going to be so easily turned aside; and indeed, I suspect that your ego would probably be rather seriously bruised if you dropped your feigned ignorance and entered into discourse with an open mind, and on equal footing with, everyone else around the table. So, if you fancy yourself an ignorant schoolmaster, you should perhaps consider suicide (which is a long and storied Shimer tradation), or a position at a middle Western junior college. For if you are feigning ignorance in order to ‘draw out,’ and by ‘draw out’ I mean ‘patronize’ your students, you are in the wrong place. And anyhow, the junior colleges (or high schools for that matter) that pay better, and there you don’t have to worry about pretending to be ignorant.
    As far as grading goes, you can go fuck yourself. Your job is to provide a simple certification indicating that the student is familiar with the work and can articulate that. That is the dirty, vocational, job that is at the bottom of all the bullshit often called “teaching.” Any little sycophant who cares what you think of them should automatically fail. If you have opinions about the texts, and the ideas discussed therein, the time for that is during class. If you have opinions about the students, beyond the ideas that are tabled in class, keep them to yourself.

  10. Power is not a substance but a relation between things. The commodity form is exchange between things and not the things themselves. Capitalism has commodified language and knowledge by reifying them into information. Capitalism exchanges forms and material language. The content of what is exchanged is completely irrelevant. it makes no difference if what is exchanged is Locke or coffee. The Left has attempted to change capitalism by changing its content, but this is irrelevant because capital is a social relation, a process and not a thing.

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