Saturday, April 15, 2006

Why didn't I learn?

In my last post, I talked a little bit about being in a situation that made me really uncomfortable and wanting to just be somewhere else. I've been thinking a bit about it, especially while I was driving and riding recently.

Here's the thing: at Northwoods U, we often talk about how we're willing to put our students in uncomfortable situations because they'll learn from them. We want them to deal with people of different cultures, to study abroad, to work through their sometime discomfort discussing feminism, gay and lesbian issues, issues regarding class and religious differences, and so forth.

Now, when it comes to sexuality, I figure in any given class, there are students who've tried things I've never heard of, and wouldn't be flexible enough to do, who've experienced things I've only read about, and who've never masturbated.

As far as drugs, I'm pretty sure there are students who've had light years more experience than I've had, and some who've never taken anything stronger than Aspirin (and given the Reye's syndrome thing, probably some who've never had aspirin). I figure in every class I teach students who are exploring their sexuality, and students who think all sexual expression outside of marriage for the purpose of procreating is deathly sin.

I know class discussions of sexuality or religious practices can make students uncomfortable, but I still explain the sexual jokes in texts, still talk about gender construction, whatever, because these are important aspects of understanding the literature I teach.

So, the other day, there I was in that uncomfortable position, and danged, it was uncomfortable.

Okay, I should have thought, I can learn from this! It's an opportunity for personal growth. But I wasn't thinking that at all.

I guess in some ways, the challenge is to take uncomfortable situations and make them into learning opportunities when you can, and I should have done that. (And my experience really was mundane, not threatening, or painful, or dangerous, or blah blah. I don't think anyone was about to beat me up or whatever.)

On the other hand, sometimes it has to be okay to decide that you've experienced some particular subculture, tried whatever veggie often enough, and that you just don't want to try it again.

One thing about the Northwoods subculture, at least this particular aspect of it: people here really try to be polite. They usually have good intentions. They can make you feel like shit with a smile on their face, totally unaware.

Partly, I realize, the issue is that (like many others) I idealize the area where I grew up, and imagine that things really would be different there. Maybe they would, but I can still imagine the exact same situation happening; heck, while I was growing up, similar situations happened, and things haven't changed all that much.

The sad fact is that there's simply no escape from certain attitudes, not here, not there. And I don't think I really learn anything encountering those attitudes again and again.


  1. I think we do idealize where we grow up. I grew up on the east coast, Maryland to be exact. I want to move back but I'm sure it won't be the perfect place I remeber.

    They can make you feel like shit with a smile on their face, totally unaware.
    In Texas I call it the 'bless your heart' syndrome. I've heard people say the most snippy, curel thing about someone and end it with 'but bless his/her heart.'

  2. This is deeply cryptic, Bardiac. I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at but I still have the feeling that I can relate....

    My first semester of college made me profoundly uncomfortable in ways I will always be grateful for. I was 17, Mormon, Republican, and about as virtuous and pure as a 17-year-old can be. And still I somehow grew up to be an agnostic liberal with a profound tolerance for sexual practices I never intend to try! Continue to make your students uncomfortable, both because it's your job and it's the right thing to do.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    History Geek, Yeah, exept these folks aren't being jerks on purpose. They just don't seem to recognize that not everyone fits their world.

    Holly, Thanks :) I do try, and most of my students reward me beyond expectations.

  4. I feel like this about twice a week in my classroom -- of course, I'm in Arkansas, where anyone more radical than a Pentecostal is a holy freak, pun intended. I get past it with this little mantra I invented for myself when I was a graduate student, studying Asian philosophy: "You don't have to be perfect every day. No one gets to win the teaching award every day. It's cool to fuck up once in awhile. Really. Really. No. It really is." And I pretend to myself that students won't remember this stuff as long as I will. (Heh.)

    Not, I'm sure, that you're as big a lackwit in the classroom as I am at times. I don't mean to imply that!

  5. Thanks for the comforting words, Delagar.

    I'm sometimes horribly shocked at the things students remember. One of my recently graduating advisees remembered the first day of my class on her first day of school with frightening clarity: she'd gotten a little lost and came late, and evidently I told her to never do it again. And I was seriously intimidating.

    Happily, she recalled that with a big smile, laughing and chatting after she'd graduated and was introducing me to her parents, so it ended well enough. Still, I don't usually try to sound that mean.