How to Inspire a Backlash

Brian Taylor

December 09, 2010

Being neither a socialist, nor the wearer of a mustache, nor a low-level colonial employee in Burma, I never expected to have a George Orwell moment. Yet here I find myself, for the first time in my life, important enough to be hated by a large number of people.

When I wrote a recent column for The Chronicle"The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail"—about the occasionally bitter joys of teaching, I never expected a backlash. And while vituperation (as a colleague of mine pointed out) is its own form of compliment, it isn't quite so much of a compliment as a compliment would be.

Admittedly, a fairly large number of people in the posted comments that followed my column either sided with me or understood me. My essay also became the subject of a substantial blog post, something I never thought would happen. But over all I've been more struck by the negative emotions I've inspired than by the positive ones.

To begin with, I think I may have insufficiently emphasized a couple of key points in my first column that seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle. First, as I tried to express in the closing paragraph, the teaching profession seems to have become progressively more devalued these days. If critics dismiss or vilify teachers, it seems only logical that at some point the feelings may be returned: I am all for turning the other cheek, but one only has two (or at most, four).

Second, and vastly more important, I celebrate fully the positive joys of teaching. As I said in the first paragraph of that first essay, I see much to relish in my profession, and relish it I do: when students blossom; when they show the ways in which they think for themselves; when they become excited about a topic; when they change for the better in an infinitely surprising number of ways. I applaud those moments and seek neither to devalue them nor to give them up.

Neither of those points, however, is meant to excuse what I said in the rest of my essay. What fascinated me about the responses was the number of people who felt I needed an excuse: I must be old and burned out (neither, depending on what you mean by "old"); I must be a miserable person (no); I must hate students (no); I must be a bad teacher (I don't think so, and my student evaluations suggest I'm not).

But, to be honest, I feel I need no excuse at all. I don't think it's a sign of embitterment to have little time for students who abuse the college experience. When I said there was pleasure to be drawn from the student who deserves to fail, and then does fail, I thought I made it plain that I did not mean those students who are not yet ready to blossom, or those students who try their best but are not yet able to pass, or even those students I have worked with to the best of both our abilities. I meant the ones who have squandered their opportunities to improve and blossom. I do not apologize for being angry at those students, nor for taking a certain kind of negative pleasure in their getting their comeuppance.

Moreover, sometimes I do get a sneaking enjoyment out of seeing people who have wasted my time or the time of others get payback for that. I don't think that's malevolence. I think it's a combination of recognizing the value of correction (sometimes people do not grow until they see the consequences of refusing to grow) and having a healthy sense of how educational time should be spent.

One can never know for certain when a student might blossom and, for that reason, teachers should be patient, hopeful, and encouraging for a very long time. But there are students who refuse to rise to challenges and refuse to change or grow. I'm not sure I believe we should extend them infinite grace. That seems to make me different from many Chronicle readers, but it's a difference I stand by.

Yet I made the admissions that I did in my article for another reason, one I feel is just as important for a teacher as the validation I mentioned above. Let me start by saying that I am a literary scholar: It is my job to plumb meaning to its depths. If I am doing my job well, I must acknowledge that the works I teach sometimes contain and express unpleasant feelings. I must admit that the sublime authors I study may have been—or, in fact, were—misogynists, racists, misanthropes, and narcissists.

To be human is to be unpleasant as well as pleasant; literature shows that both by what it says and by what it is. Facing that about the works and authors I teach, how much of a hypocrite, a fantasist, or a solipsist would I have to be not to acknowledge that I contain the same unpleasantness? If I am committed to the discovery of truth, how can I not be committed to the discovery and acknowledgment of unpleasant truths about myself, one of which surely is the pleasure I take in some occasionally unpleasant feelings?

Anger, dislike, weariness, schadenfreude: Those are all, for me, parts of human experience. That does not mean those emotions rule people, but it does mean they are there sometimes. Acknowledging those feelings may improve the chances that they won't affect how I behave, since acknowledgment leads to awareness, which, in turn, can lead to clarity and caution (if not the kind of caution that keeps one from writing an article for The Chronicle).

So I did not write my original article because I was burned out, or filled with rage, or even—delightful as it might be—a harpy. I wrote it, in part, out of a sense of ironic fun that I assumed (naïvely I now see) would be shared, and, in part, as a description of occasional and ephemeral angers that I saw no harm in sharing.

But equally I wrote it because I feel it is part of my job, as a teacher as well as a person, to acknowledge my negatives as well as my positives—not because that makes me superior, or inferior, but because it makes me human.

Alice Fenton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a university in the South.