on bad teaching, burnout and bell hooks

Today is another very hot day–according to my weather channel app it is 94 but feels like 120. Yes, 120 (thank you, Minnesota humidity). It is Tuesday and it has been this hot since Sunday. This is very wrong. Especially since I don’t have central air. As I write this, I am holed up in one of the 2 bedrooms in the house that has a window air conditioning unit. As you can imagine, these conditions are not the most conducive to writing and thinking and engaging. I am struggling to focus my ideas. I have been at this since 10:30; it is now 3:51 and I really don’t have much to show for it.

I wonder, is it just the miserably hot and humid weather that is stopping me from writing? I don’t think so. I am also struggling because I feel compelled to write about my feelings of burn out, my disillusionment with teaching at a big research University, and my uncertainty over whether or not I can survive in the academic industrial complex. While I am compelled to write about these things, I don’t know how to properly (do I want to be proper?) or effectively express what I am thinking/feeling/experiencing. I can’t imagine going another day without putting some of my ideas on my blog (hmmm…why is it so important to me that I make these thoughts public? I might need to reflect on that in another blog post) so I am forcing myself to write right now. Since I don’t like coherent, smooth (untroubled) narratives and because I can’t imagine producing any like that in this heat anyway, I want to offer a few fragments of experiences, ideas, sources that are slogging around in my head.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bell hooks and Teaching to Transgress lately. In particular, I am reminded of her description in the introduction of the bad class that she taught one semester. It was a very early class and she would have frequent nightmares that she overslept and missed it. The students lacked energy and were very resistant to engaging with new ideas. hooks hated the class.

I came to hate this class so much that I had a tremendous fear that I would not awaken to attend it; the night before (despite alarm clocks, wake-up calls, and the experiential knowledge that I had never forgotten to attend class) I still could not sleep (hooks 9).

Before my class even started in the spring, I dreaded it. It was a big class (almost 3 times bigger than any of the class that I had taught before) and I was doubtful that I would be able to develop it into a effective and transformative learning space. Once the class began, I was certain that my feminist pedagogical principles/tactics (such as: discussions instead of lectures, frequent small group activities, student-lead activities) would not work. I hated that class. Unlike hooks I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t wake up and would miss the class. Instead, I had fantasies about not going to class and just walking away from the university altogether. I wondered, what would happen if I just didn’t show up? 

 For reasons I cannot explain it [hooks’ class] was also full of “resisting” students who did not want to learn new pedagogical processes, who did not want to be in a classroom that differed in any way from the norm. To these students, transgressing boundaries was frightening. And though they were not the majority, their spirit of rigid resistance seemed always to be more powerful than any will to intellectual openness and pleasure in learning (hooks 9).

I did have some great students in my class that semester. Some students who probably got a lot of the class and were excited to be exposed to new theories on sex, gender and sexuality. And who liked using the course blog and critically analyzing popular culture. But the students I remember most were the ones who complained. Who were unwilling to engage with new ideas. Who refused to claim their education or think for themselves. And whose “spirit of rigid resistance” made the class increasingly difficult to endure. 

More than any other class I had taught, this one compelled me to abandon the sense that the professor could, by sheer strength of will and desire, make the classroom an exciting learning community (hooks 9).

Even as I grew to strongly dislike the attitudes of some of the students, I knew that their resistance wasn’t simply because they were lazy and didn’t want to learn. The more I taught, the more I realized that my painful teaching experience had so much to do with other factors beyond mine and the students’ control: the alienating space, the institutional emphasis–heightened by the economic crisis–on increasing class enrollment instead of enhancing engagement, and the overall conditioning of students into passive learners who aren’t prepared (or willing) to experiment with new ways of engaging with ideas and each other. These factors aren’t just accidents; increasingly, they seem to be built into teaching at a research university. It makes me wonder, if these factors are part of the teaching experience, (how) will it ever be possible to cultivate exciting and transformative learning communities within the University?

It is now 10 PM. After an extended break, I am back to finishing up this entry. It has cooled down (ha!) to 91. And it only feels like 105. Yes, at 10 PM it feels like 105. Anyway, I think the heat is finally melting my brain. I had intended to write even more about bad teaching, burn out and bell hooks today, but I think that’s it for tonight.