HOW NOT TO TEACH AT CUNY

by Ethan Gologor, Medgar Evers

 

PSCcuny
NEWS BULLETIN

APRIL 2001

 

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The CUNY Budget: Moment of Truth

TeachCUNY reaches 18 campuses, 100s of classrooms

Negotiations Update

Letters to the Editor

New PSC Committee on Diversity Begins Work

Health and Safety Update: It's in the Air

New Faculty Speak Out at Brooklyn College

DA Approves Dues Change for Part-Timers

Lights Out for Edison 

Spotlight on Adjunct Concerns at Legislative Hearing

Washington State & California Take the Lead on Adjunct Equity

What the Statistics Say

What the Adjuncts Say

ACTing Out: Giuliani & Media vs CUNY (with bibiliography on testing)

"Teach CUNY" and the Classroom

How Not to Teach at CUNY

The Past Year and the Union's Future

Against Common Sense

 

 

 

 

 

It wasnít until point 169 of the PSCís contract proposals that I found one into which I could dig my teeth. The bland "Health and safety protections shall be substantially strengthened" got me energized. Itís not that I would mind improving the conditions of "professional life." But having waged a campaign at my campus for many years over deteriorating conditions of everyday life, I donít apologize for my priorities.

How many more students must faint because the heat, particularly in overcrowded rooms, has become unbearable? How many more pedestrians must be knocked over on the major thoroughfare between our "campusís" main buildings because the traffic light is forever stuck? How many more faculty have to be mugged because gates are kept locked on one side of the back entrance, forcing us to detour through pitch-black streets at night? What does it take to convince administrators that we donít need to be reminded of our holy "mission" to "deliver services" so much as we need the delivery of typing and toilet paper? Conditions of faculty life? Iím talking a little more basic than that. Iím talking space, air and light.

But what do we hear from the missionaries in administration? That weíre about to achieve an empowering content-area orientation, which, in a post-industrial employment setting, can utilize pieces in specific disciplines as well as innovations in fundamental foundations so that an overview of the information-based, critical-competency and problem-solving skills of the program can impact a dialogue, in terms of the curriculum. I guess the toilet paper will have to wait.

So I didnít mind finding myself the only representative of my college, potentially a contract liaison, at a meeting at the PSC central office. And not just perhaps to find the negotiators expert at squeezing out more space or air or light. Because I donít know how much longer I can commit myself to a classroom apparently so inconsequential that I need a bullhorn to counter the corridor noise by which no oneóstudents, security officials, teachersóseems remotely bothered. This is a classroom into which stroll-by students routinely toss their soda cans. This is the classroom as garbage dump.

So I went to Union Central in part to see if I might find the seriousness of purpose that we need, a seriousness that characterized my first teaching experience in the Peace Corps in Somalia in the early 60ís. I can think of many tales, but the most memorable concerned not a fellow volunteer but Carnegie, a UNESCO teacher from England whose commitment was everywhere evident. If the school roof caved in or a goat wandered into his class, he would continue parsing sentences on the board, undaunted. On many a morning he could be found leading students into the surrounding woods, as he somehow managed to use the local flora to teach grammar. Although he had earlier in his life traveled the world many times over, and in fact had left an executive position with Rolls Royce to join UNESCO, he never seduced studentsí interest with tales of his own adventures. Nor wore his impeccable liberal credentials on his academic sleeve.

Midway through our first semester, a political crisis arose, students boycotting classes and taking to the streets, shouting "Down with imperialism!" When Carnegie refused to let them back, at least not until they had apologized for slashing the tires on his jeep, an emergency faculty meeting was called during which the headmaster, well-versed in mediation, pleaded with him to be more forgiving. He painstakingly explained that students often behave irrationally, that we must encourage free expression and that in the last analysis maybe English grammar isnít that important. Toward the end of his exquisite speech, Carnegie, by now having turned a bright and furious red, leaped up, banged a fist on the table, and bellowed, "You act as if nothing has happened. If I let them back now, my dignity as a human being would sink to the ground. Donít try your powers of persuasion on me, Dr. óó. I know what I think. I donít have to be told what to think."

Had he pounded that fist at any of the five hundred faculty meetings Iíve since attended, Carnegie wouldnít have been around very long. Heíd have been convicted of arrogance, poor interpersonal skills, lack of collegiality, insensitivity to students, insensitivity to minorities, sleeping with the enemy and raising his voice.

Could I hope to find some respect for the teacher and classroom restored among union activists? Certainly the majority are passionate about their convictions, and the public events planned for March 28 sounded well and goodóbut the willingness of almost everyone to have the classroom serve the political agenda alarmed me. The arguments came fast and furious, illogical, self-serving and disrespectful, au fond, of both classroom and teacher. What could be more important than TEACHING CUNY? (Shakespeare? History? Grammar?) Whatever the subject, integrate it. Students have a right to hear about the conditions in which they learn and you shouldnít distance yourself from the down and dirty. And the most insidiously destructive of all, if you object to politicizing the classroom, youíre treated as a reactionary who doesnít know all classes are political or appreciate the "always already socially, politically inflected dimension" of university teaching.

It will take, Iím afraid, more than five consecutive adverbs to have me adopt the view that politics infects all of our relationships. A major consequence of teaching those two years in Somalia was that we came to be regarded, for better or worse, not as imperialists or even Americans but simply as people. The proof of this is in the friendships that have endured, through plague and war, for nearly 40 years. No, Iím afraid the argument I heard at Union Central constitutes a classic petitio principii, in which the assumption that everything is political succeeds in making everything political. It is the defense of those who are so obsessed by their personal agenda that they easily rationalize it into a pedagogical priority.

Little wonder then that even anonymous students feel free to dump their trash into the classroom.