I went into class today tired and sick. I was suffering under an impending respiratory infection, and I didn’t want to use my voice too much. I went in prepared with a video – an excellent ethnographic documentary – fully intending to use it for discussion.
But a few moments after I sat down and made a few comments – just to nudge students in the direction of the topic before I showed them the video – I realized that the class was on fire. From beginning to end, an hour and a quarter, the discussion never flagged. The students were bright-eyed, eager, and reflective. Sometimes high participation means an excess of irrelevant but personal comments. Not today. The comments were deep, cerebral, and pertinent. And they were non-stop.
I kept thinking, I should cut this discussion short and pop in the video. But I knew, too, that the students were thinking, thinking hard and eagerly, creatively, on the topic (relativism and neutrality). Students aren’t a mechanical puzzle: you don’t put in all in the ingredients, do your job, and walk out. Teaching is more organic than that – and more unpredictable. I teach three sections of the same course, and often I tell myself I will reduce my workload by doing the same prep and the same tricks for each section. But I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Each group is different. Each group responds to a different kind of magic. There is nothing uniform about it.
Frequently, I walk into class with a plan that seems brilliant, but the energy just isn’t there. The flame doesn’t burn. I walk out, sometimes, disappointed and sorrowful, irrationally depressed, that the energy wasn’t there. A good class is like a high. I’ve been a teacher and a public speaker for a long time, off and on, and my work relies on igniting the energy in the room. I do not speak independently of my audience. I speak with them.
This high is addictive. The highs remind me of when I first started the zikr (devotions) in my Sufi tariqa (order). The high was instantaneous, intoxicating. It increased, and then, after some time, it stopped. I felt a sinking sense of loss, as if I had lost a treasure. But I hadn’t lost. My shaikh told me it was because I had plateaued. The intoxication is easy, he explained. The control and balance of steadfast work is hard.
Not all teaching yields a high like today’s class did. But as a teacher, I must continue to prepare, exert myself, learn, read, and research new materials and methods – regardless of the returns by way of energy and excitement. … Well, not regardless. -After all, harvesting energy from my students (I sound like a vampire) enables me to do better and more. We harvest energy from our students because teaching – good teaching – drains enormous quantities of energy. One-directional instruction demands that you prepare an essay – a readable essay, to be sure, but an essay – and then you read it aloud, and then ask, Any questions? There may be advantages, especially in some areas of study, in the old lecture style of teaching. I couldn’t do it myself. Even in my public speaking engagements when I have spoken for an hour without interruptions, I draw upon the energies in the room. Is there any other way?
As the economy supposedly improves, many of those in the middle classes find themselves teetering and struggling to keep their heads above water. But they have not the luxury of publicly examining the nature of their struggles. In the middle classes of the first world, it’s indecent to speak of poverty and want. The neoliberal language of blame brings shame to the victims of poverty because surely, if you had worked hard enough and smart enough you would not find yourself in this position. Surely if you had paid your bills on time, you would not now be bleeding money in bad credit, insufficient funds fees, and late fees. Surely you ought to have enough money from your paycheck to purchase gas so you can drive to work. Surely, if you were irresponsible enough to have a child, you should have put aside enough money to educate her. Why don’t you lower your standards a little? Why don’t you save a little on milk and cheese? Why don’t you skip shopping at thrift stores for work clothes? Why, why, why? If we who are so like you in cultural style and taste can manage and flourish, why can’t you? And if you, who have done all the right things by way of education, work, and finances, can fail – that sends us a deeply unwelcome message that we would rather not hear. We don’t wish to hear the conclusion to that argument. We’d rather speak of decontextualized poverty somewhere else so that we can establish a comfortable distance from it.
The upper middle and upper classes live in a world of ideas, preferences, options, and possibilities. To speak of penury in this ethereal realm is immodest and indecent. It’s like speaking of crime and lust to wealthy Victorian women in a Dickens novel. It is theoretical. Imagine talking about quantum physics to farmers sitting on a porch in the evening. Imagine blank stares. Poverty does not fit in a world where people are trying to decide whether to select a cruise to the Bahamas or a down-to-earth (!) backpacking trip to Europe. Poverty is inappropriate in such a world. It’s inappropriate because it makes the cruise look so very wrong. It makes that shopping spree, that mansion in the suburbs, the multiple cars, the designer toys, seem irrelevant. We want to be prosperous and happy, but we also want to garner the symbolic wealth of being socially conscious and outraged about other people’s misery. Feeding on other people’s hunger, disease, and misery is an integral portion of prosperity, health, and comfort.
Through Facebook memes and cable news poverty makes its way into our comfortable homes. We can convincingly wring our hands over the plight of starving children in Africa and struggling farmers in India. After all, we won’t be witnessing swollen black bellies at the dinner table next to the roast. But when a colleague is unable to buy gas to get to work, or cannot save up because he keeps getting slammed with late fees, or doesn’t have the money to buy a cup of coffee – now that strikes home. That is believable. That is an experience you could have if you had a few unlucky investments or unfortunate health events.
So that is a narrative you don’t want to hear. Not at the dinner table. Let’s not get too close. Can you unfortunates move to Rwanda or Myanmar and live in a famine-stricken village or urban slum? From that appropriate distance we can paypal you an appropriate monthly sum of money through a relief organization and they can send us a tax deduction receipt and a short video of your grateful child. We kill people with a button and a screen rather than a scimitar; we get our protein from a grocery aisle, not a bloody slaughter in the yard. Why should our class awareness be any different, any closer?