I can’t remember the name of the kid in 9th grade who I told on the bus one day: “Judas Priest sucks.” He wanted to kick my ass for that comment. He let me know everyday that he wanted to kick my ass. I told him to bring it on. We never fought, though. But if we had, we would have fought over whether or not Judas Priest sucked. And I didn’t even care if Judas Priest sucked when I made the remark. I just told him that the band sucked. I’m not sure why I said so.
I heard “Living After Midnight” on the drive home from work today. I have one major road – Broadway (which becomes Harrodsburg) to drive home. Most times I’m driving home, I’m thinking back on the class I taught, a lecture course on Facebook. I make mental notes of all the things I wish I had done better – from the beginning of the semester until now – and I make mental notes of all the things I believe the students have done wrong – from the beginning of the semester until now. When I form these narratives in my head, I, no doubt, believe that they are original stories of pedagogical frustration. This is my struggle with a class that did not go right. But I know that the stories I tell myself on the drive home are not unique to me. Whatever issues or problems I experienced in the first large, lecture course I’ve taught in almost 20 years of teaching, these issues or problems are not novel. Others have experienced the same issue for some time now.
Thinking Judas Priest sucks is not a unique thought to me now or to me in the 9th grade. I am not the first nor the last person to say Judas Priest sucks. Most critical commentary is posed as if it were a unique thought. Charles Simic calls the generation that I meet twice a week in a lecture course “the age of ignorance.” He leads off this claim with the hyperbolic declaration that “Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal.” Students – in a large, lecture course or elsewhere – are an easy target for such critiques. Simic’s observations, though, don’t ring false. People don’t know much. I was surprised that the class did not recognize the iconic Kent State national guard shooting photograph when I showed it in class. I was surprised that they had not seen the South Park episode on Facebook. Despite Vannevar Bush’s wet dream of a system of interconnected information basically realized today, people don’t know. But not just students. Academics, despite their claims to the contrary, don’t know either. Judith Butler doesn’t know. Bruce Robbins doesn’t know. The entire MLA body doesn’t know. They think they know (about politics, geopolitical conflict, ethnic tensions, economics), but only because they spend much time lecturing to students who don’t know and convincing themselves that superficial readings of headlines, romantic visions of David and Goliath, and epideictic performance (in text and elsewhere) offer up some “true” sense of the world where injustice is easily identified as what they already think injustice is. They repeat narratives as unique thought, often without any more research or knowledge than the typical Fox News target of The Daily Show. But, of course, they are academic stars. Not undergraduates. They, by their very title and place in the culture, are supposed to know. It would be much more difficult to call them the products of an age of ignorance than the students who have been told as such before. Tom Wolfe called youth the Me generation in the mid-70s and Time magazine did the same a few years back. Calling kids ignorant or superficial is not new. The unique thought is not that unique.
It was, of course, ignorant of me in the 9th grade to say for no reason: Judas Priest sucks. We are all ignorant of many things, but the narratives we circulate about our most intense concerns never seem to include any aspect or claim of ignorance. The narratives always assume the hermetic seal of knowing. The subject need not be political – though many humanities folks have positioned themselves as experts on the political for some reason (the famous gender expert now knows everything about the Middle East, for instance). When I watched the very well made short film Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, I was left with that feeling of a narrative that sees no cracks in the story it wants to tell. The narrative is all knowing. Con Job’s story is easily summed up as: universities hire people at unfair wages to teach writing/these people are often forced to go through extreme situations because of their exploitation.
Not that there isn’t any accuracy in the statement. There is. The narrative is true. And because the goal of the narrative is to convince a supposedly unaware, ignorant, or not yet sympathetic audience to believe in the adjunct situation, there is no reason to show the cracks in the story of contingent labor not shown in the film. Yet, not showing the cracks, for me, weakens the story overall. The story comes off as too pure, too right, too sure of its tale of injustice. Should the story also tell the story of literature graduate students dismissing advice regarding the future of tenure line employment (then regretting that rejection later)? Should the story tell the story of literature graduate students dismissive of writing instruction until its the only job that they can find, even if part time? Should the story tell the story of a national dependence on the idea of general education when general education is being used to just fill seats for budget fulfillment? Or what about the story of trying to secure full time employment with only a master’s degree (when the rest of us have PhDs, publications, service records, networking)? Can the story be told of the graduate student who is too busy grading papers to go see a guest speaker on campus (and thus learn how research is presented professionally, meet someone in the field, make a connection, be professional, etc) but who ends up jobless later in life? Or what about the story regarding what would happen if no one took contingent jobs anymore? Can Con Job tell that story?
These stories, too, belong int he larger story. And yet they are absent. They don’t conform to the already known, already told, already circulated story that we feel makes us smarter, not ignorant. The adjunct fight is the fight that most people commit to in one oral/textual manner or another (support, empathy, dissent) but that they really don’t fight over. It’s not really even a fight. Some blog posts. A short film. Discontent. Chronicle of Higher Education first person narratives. Tweets. Some inaccurate coverage in Slate. None of this makes for a fight.These are disconnected and scattered declarations that something sucks. That’s all they are.
I never fought that kid in 9th grade. I can’t say I regret not fighting him. I have no idea if I would have won or lost that fight. He seemed pretty committed, though, to the idea of Judas Priest. He seemed committed, but he never went through with the fight over Judas Priest. That’s likely the real sign of an age of ignorance. The issue regarding ignorance ,as Simic and others claim, is not factual knowledge (though, in my own pedagogical struggles, I often come back to E.D. Hirsch with a fondness I never felt previously). The issue is likely the real fight. You fight when you think you know. But you have to fight to show that you think you know. A conference resolution. A short film. A blog post. Are these fights? Are these real fights?. That kid should have fought me for saying Judas Priest sucks. But he didn’t. So, I don’t really believe his commitment to Judas Priest. And most people, ignorant or not, don’t really fight either.