my wrong words

August 30, 2007

I have come down from my gushing enthusiasm re. my subjects and teachers at UoP.  I am almost-but-not-quite feeling disillusioned all over again.  Mostly the reasons for this are simple:

  1. The student-teacher power hierarchy is so rigid that class discussion consists largely of silence or repetition of what the teacher has just told us.  Critical thinking, emphasised in theory so much by the politics teachers, is not really practised and not particularly encouraged.
  2. My Politics in the Developing World teacher holds very strong views that somehow manage to combine westcentricism, neo-liberalism and neo-Stalinism.  This is confusing and depressing (she apparently has the ear of the UNDP in India).
  3. A minor difference in opinion in our Dalit Literature class somehow became a messy hour long argument between Erin and I and our teacher Raj Rao.  Let me try to explain…

 I have been reluctant in getting this exchange down, I was shaken by it, can’t really find the right words for it – but here are my wrong words anyway… 

In our Dalit literature course we were looking at two autobiographical excerpts.  One was the story of a Dalit child – she was a good student but was unable to stay in school due to discrimination on the basis of her gender and caste.  The second story was of a Dalit woman who was in an abusive marriage.  She returned to her home and told her family about the unhappy situation.  The family supported her and told her she could stay with them rather than forcing her to go back to her husband (which often happens). 

Raj Rao is our Alternative Literatures teacher who, as I’ve said, is a published gay writer himself.  He places a lot of emphasis on being revolutionary, ‘anti-status quoist’, extreme.  He makes a point of declaring his sexuality to us, repeatedly, and believes that if you’re not open about these things then you’re ‘status-quoist’ and a lemming to society.

Raj said that the second story (about the married woman) was better than the first (about the school girl) because it was more progressive – the family were doing something that was difficult but that could work to break down patterns of abuse and discrimination.  Women here are often sent back into abusive marriages, often with fatal consequences, and he appreciated the move against that by the family. 

The problem Erin and I had was basically that there was more than one interpretation of these stories, that both could be progressive in their own way.  After all, the stories are autobiographical.  This could mean, by implication, an ultimately happy ending to the first story – the girl was denied a traditional education, but she has presumably found an alternative to this as she is now a published writer.  Also, the second story, taken to its logical conclusion does not necessarily have a happy ending.  Raj himself explained to us the stigma that surrounds unmarried women above a certain age in Indian society.  It is similar to the Madonna/whore dichotomy that women encounter in western society – if a woman has not taken the path of chaste, monogamous housewife she is assumed to be a libertine, polygamous prostitute.  Additionally, stories that don’t have happy endings can still be revolutionary – they can create friction and indignation and outrage and these feelings can be productive in terms of achieving change, of being ‘revolutionary’.  These ideas were the essence of what Erin and I said, not that groung-breaking. 

Raj exploded. 

He became extremely defensive, aggressive even.  He accused us of not knowing what we’re talking about, demanded that we explain ourselves properly, but then kept interrupting us before we could complete a sentence.  He continually peppered his sentences with post-modern lingo – meta-narrative, intertextuality blah blah blah in a way that suggested we wouldn’t understand these terms. 

He accused us of having a missionary complex, of liking the first story more because we saw a place for ourselves in it, a space for us to enter and interfere and make things better for the poor misguided Dalits.  I think that there is definitely an aspect of this in me.  It’s too easy to let aid work become an egotistical, self-growth exercise, to venture into the wildernesses of poverty, do some good deeds, talk to some wary locals and leave and never come back, congratulating yourself and boasting to your friends about the profound connections you’ve forged with the natives.  I’m guilty of this, but I’m aware of it too, and the way Raj accused us was unnecessarily scathing.   In any case, none of us are perfect.

It was incredibly intimidating to be confronted with so much resentment and bile from a teacher.  It was unprofessional.  He even used the rest of the class against us at one point.  As I said earlier, the power hierarchy is quite rigid and in most of our classes students just do not contradict their teachers (maybe we shouldn’t have attempted it, but I didn’t even feel like we were contradicting him, just offering a different perspective).  So halfway through the argument he accused us of just wanting to disrupt the class, of not making any sense, of not being able to grasp a simple concept.  He proceeded to go around individually to the rest of the class, asking them what they thought.  Each student parroted what Raj had been saying or regurgitated the plot of the two stories.  It was so demoralising, at least one of the students must have thought something different.  Though I don’t really blame them for biting their tongues if that’s what they did, at that point I was wishing that I had not said anything either. 

As I said, Raj is fixated with declaring his sexuality, using it as a pretext to his ideas.  He decided that it would be “polite” if we did the same, explain ourselves in terms of where we are coming from.  I believe now that he wanted us to say that we are white, middle-class and heterosexual so he could chop us down again, reiterate our status-quoism, missionary-complex and remind us that we are not in the position to really critique Dalit literature because we have no understanding of it (which is what he had said to us earlier, but why did he let us join the course then, and what on earth are we meant to say about the literature if we don’t have permission to be critical of it???  This is political correctness taken to excess and I told him.  It is not helpful to put writing like this on pedestals, to not critique it, to tiptoe around the writing like Raj seems to want.).  Raj kept insisting that we “explain where we’re coming from”.  I did not feel comfortable opening myself up like that, being forced to explain myself considering the negative atmosphere that had been generated and said so (this was after about 45 minutes of arguing)… 

Raj:    “Are you accusing the class of generating a negative atmosphere?  I think you’re the one who has created the negative atmosphere.  Look around you, who in this class are you accusing of that?” 

I was forced to explain that it wasn’t the class that had created the negative atmosphere but Raj himself.  I told him that he had made me feel uncomfortable with his aggression, that he had become patronising (calling me “my dear girl”, I hate being called pet names like that) and unpleasant and I reserved my right to not have to open myself up like that.

He seemed to gather himself together a little after this, though he wouldn’t let the argument go, saying that he wanted to make sure that we did not leave his classroom confused because that had never happened to him in 20 years of teaching.  Crap.  I’m sure he just intimidated students so much that they realised (more quickly than we did) that it is far better to not express confusion or disagreement with anything he says. 

He finally dismissed us 30 minutes after the class should have finished.  Ultimately he seemed to respect us for defending our opinions in the argument, though he still ensured that he had the last word. 

It felt humiliating to have dominated a whole hour of class with an argument (that Raj classified as a “non-argument”) just between Erin and I and Raj, with the rest of the class silent and watching.  I feel stigmatised in front of them now, and I think some of them might be less inclined to talk to us.  Raj also made a point of telling us that he had now been prevented from going through the second half of his lesson plan, intending to make us feel guilty, which it did.  Ultimately I feel proud of us for sticking up for ourselves and not being railroaded by his aggressiveness (he is one of those people who feel that if you talk longer and louder than your opponent you have won the argument), but I never want to go through that again. 

Erin and I went on a quest for tonic water after this episode.  We had bought a bottle of gin  duty free in Darwin airport on our way to Mumbai and felt that this would be a perfect time to break it open (we were stunned and in shock and in desperate need of a drink).  Unfortunately when we asked for tonic water we were directed to the chemists.  We settled for guava juice and Bacardi (also courtesy of Darwin Duty Free). 

I’ve always been spoilt with English teachers – Mr Young and Mr Green in high school, then Liz McMahon and Kate at uni.  It feels like a violation to have such a bad English experience.  I’m about to leave for his class now and I have butterflies and I have resolved to never speak up again in that class and I hate that he’s had that effect on me.

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One Response to “my wrong words”

  1. Tom Says:

    dude!

    wow. that sounds like quite the confrontation. i think your just going to face facts here lucy, some people are simply prats. and you’ll have to live with them….or kill them….

    ive met teachers like that, if you hold your own, and dont get angry and dont let them intimidate you, and simply explain the literal as opposed to the theoretical, then you should be fine. when he asks where are you coming from, state it, but in the same breath, tell him you dont want to be sidelined for the fact that you are white and hetro etc etc. and if he interrupts, interrupt right back and declare, calmy that you havent finished speaking.

    as ive said, ive met teachers like this, and once every now and again, they must be taken down from the pedestals they think they deserve.


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