A Course You’ve Never Heard Of (Or, Why Higher Ed Should Be Free)
Adapted from a post entitled “A Course You’ve Never Heard Of” on the HASTAC forum, “Best Teaching Moments.”
I value interdisciplinary classes like “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” because they prompt reflections on my own disciplinary and intellectual investments–my situatedness within academia. Sometimes it’s hard to see the parameters of your own discipline–its basic assumptions, methodologies, politics, and pedagogies–until you interact with people who are having other conversations. Below I’ve included a narrative that gives a sense of my investment in public higher education, and how pursuing studies under the rubric of English has allowed me to continue exploring the role of culture in socioeconomic and political life. I hope that it explains why I was so excited to take a class that is committed to a better future for public education.
Below are the notes I took on my first day of “Introduction to Literary Theory” with Professor Richard Dienst at Rutgers University, which must have been about five years ago. I found myself in that class because it happened to be what Professor Dienst was teaching, and I had loved the previous course I took with him. Ever since, I’ve encouraged students to take classes based on the professor and not the topic. If I had let my uncertainty as to what literary theory is discourage me from taking the class, my life would have turned out very differently. Education involves exploring the unknown–and the more you learn, the more you discover how much there is that you don’t know. It’s an understanding of education that feels very far from the idea of expertise that many people associate with teaching and learning.
Though the class was called “literary theory” I quickly learned that the actual topics were language, power, representation, economics, inequality, race, and gender. I learned that a cultural artifact–a news article, commercial, painting, literary text, or advertisement–could be interpreted in many different ways, based on whether your framework was Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, or postructuralist (to name just a few). We learned the fundamental assumptions and limitations of these different perspectives, always reflecting on how they changed our common sense understandings of how the world works.
As the notes indicate, this class was my first exposure to thinking through metaphor. It was a class that taught us to read according to the principle of “what if things were different?” We learned “survival skills” for parachuting into unfamiliar territory, and were encouraged to embrace “the experimental life.” The idea that learning is a series of experiments, in which you simply cannot fail, has been integral to my own teaching and learning. I always ask questions and encourage my students to ask questions. There can be no such fear of not knowing when the process of learning involves an increasing awareness of how little you know. In addition, excellent professors have taught me to divorce knowledge from worth by never holding my “stupid” questions against me. Asking smart questions, or even holding a college degree, does not make anyone more worthy of anything.
Looking back, I realize how privileged I was to be taking this class–in the financial sense of the term. I happened to be attending college for free since my mom was an administrator at the school. She was also a college graduate and a history major, who never put any pressure on me to pick a major that would yield a lucrative career. Had I been paying my own way through college with the goal of getting a well-paying job, I likely would not have taken classes in things I had never heard of like “literary theory.” Though this first day of class was only one moment in a long educational journey, it radically altered the path my life would take, and the very happy place that I’m in now. The theory classes I’ve taken have taught me about the radical conditions of unjust economic inequality that we live in, and have inspired an ethical demand to address these conditions in which the fortune of of the few takes precedence over the dispossession of the many. They’ve taught me to take seriously discrepancies, contradictions, and nuances, to embrace and proliferate the moments in which things don’t add up, or are not easily understood. They’ve led me to aesthetics and to protests: explorations of the collective histories, wills, imaginaries, and actions that reverberate beneath the surface of atomistic common sense.
None of this would have been possible had I been born into circumstances where I had to think about where my next meal would come from. Fighting for public education, a project I’m currently involved in, is just one aspect of a larger fight for the good life for all. If everyone had food, a place to sleep, and access to free public education, we could all take classes in things we’ve never of, learn how much there is to know, and have our lives changed for the better.