Do students already agree with See’s political views?
Adam See, adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College, wrote an open letter to his students in the October issue of The Walrus in which he explains his philosophy of teaching. Specifically, he speaks about how he cannot pretend—and more importantly, shouldn’t pretend—to be objective about his progressive political convictions. His argument, a reasonably convincing one, is that because nothing is neutral and students have been receiving political programming since day one, it is important for him to be honest about who he is and what he believes, and to challenge his students’ own orthodoxies.
The piece, while well-written and earnest, is essentially leftist boilerplate about the importance of critical thinking, the kind of thing most people who hold a bachelor’s degree in the humanities are all quite familiar with. These platitudes struck me as being slightly troubling. When See encourages his students to “live loudly and actively. Piss people off. Challenge institutions,” he is clearly speaking about very specific people and institutions; one does not imagine he would take kindly to bigotry, homophobia, a challenging of CWILA’s legitimacy, or any number of other freely expressed views, nor should he.
The problem with See’s article, and it is a problem frequently found in literary communities as well as in the humanities, is that it comes across as glorifying rebelliousness for its own sake. See’s rhetoric assumes a minority position. As a vegetarian and passionate animal-rights activist who quotes whole paragraphs from Howard Zinn’s critical leftist account of the American project, The People’s History of the United States, he is probably a minority among Americans. But he would not be a particularly striking minority in the average humanities department of an American or Canadian university, and especially not in an arts or social sciences department.
A study released in 2001 shows that academics overwhelmingly identify as leftist or centrist, and that this tendency is even more pronounced in the humanities and social sciences. The study went on to suggest that this tendency could be partially explained through socialization. Different academic disciplines are predisposed by their curricula to certain ideological biases (the hard sciences tend to eschew constructivist accounts of human behaviour, economics tends to assume rational human subjects, the arts tend to emphasize human malleability, etc.), and as students spend more time within a certain discipline, they are more likely to conform to those ideological biases; those who reject them are unlikely to remain within the discipline and even less likely to be given opportunities to teach after graduation. Thus, the culture reproduces itself.
While See may indeed be “playing the gadfly” (as he puts it) when he designs his curriculum with the intention to provoke, the ways in which he is being provocative are completely within the orthodoxy of his discipline. Culture and society are not monolithic; something that is considered shocking in the small town of Altona, Manitoba, may be completely banal in Vancouver, while something that challenges the preconceived notions of a male, Anglo-Saxon bank manager from Antigonish may be common knowledge for the daughter of Haitian lesbians in Montreal. What tends to be true across the board is that people self-select and spend the bulk of their time with people who already share their own views.
Not only does See’s open letter assume a homogeneous class, it also assumes a conservative one where students will automatically be unfamiliar with, or opposed to, his socio-political views; for example, his support of the animal rights movement. While I suppose it is possible that See’s classroom really is made up of this kind of student, my experience both as a student and an educator in the post-secondary humanities has been that there are plenty of students taking first-year humanities courses precisely because they already share See’s progressive politics, or at least their cultural underpinnings. Of course, I do not mean to ignore the fact that some students are simply showing up to get their arts credit, and that for these students See’s contrarian stance may well be appropriate. What concerns me about the rhetoric in his open letter is how frequently he employ sit even in upper-level seminars where most of the students agree wholeheartedly with their instructor’s politics.
Conservative politics are rare among Canadian poets
I have noticed a similar tendency within literary communities. Poetry (and I will speak here specifically of Canadian poetry, with which I am most familiar) has shown a strong tendency toward leftist politics in the past couple of generations. Dionne Brand, Margaret Atwood, Fred Wah, David Helwig, Di Brandt, Dennis Lee, Don McKay, George Eliot Clarke, Erin Mouré—the list of prominent, politically involved poets is remarkable. While not all or even most Canadian poetry is political, those poems that are often overwhelmingly adopt a contrarian, leftist stance that challenges inequality, environmental degradation, and racism. In fact, I find it exceedingly difficult to think of even one prominent poet writing today who would qualify as being properly conservative or reactionary.
Let me be clear that this is not a criticism of leftist poetry. I consider Canadian art’s tendency to reflect a progressive and egalitarian mode of thought worthy of celebration. But it also begs the question: who reads this provocative and challenging poetry, and does it warrant the controversial pose it so frequently adopts? Certainly, there are places in the world where writing literature can land one in serious political danger; consider Dunya Mikhail, driven from her native Iraq by Hussein’s government in the ’90s, or the Russian Pussy Rioters Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, imprisoned for making a music video. Or consider the great number of Nobel Prize winners, Orhan Pamuk being one of the most recent, to put themselves in very real danger by expressing their ideas. To be considered “radical,” a writer must be working within or against a political context that is actively oppressive. Things are not that bad in Canada, and writers play an important role in ensuring that does not change. Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and agonistic “Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written” captures this tension: truly revolutionary poetry, she suggests, can only be written where the stakes are high, but “In this country you can say what you like / because no one will listen to you anyway.”
So, when Adam See cautions that a pedagogy failing to adopt a provocative stance risks providing “nothing more than a positive reinforcement of attitudes, values, and norms,” I mostly agree with him. I just worry that by the time we have got through the first couple of years of university, most of us have surrounded ourselves with like-minded people and works. We rarely do the hard work of actually engaging with those who have fundamentally different and potentially antagonistic worldviews. Enough positive reinforcement of even the best values leads to a kind of chauvinism, a failure to understand that someone can be a thoughtful, informed individual and still disagree with us. This kind of reinforcement (which, again, the statistics cited above suggest is a feature of academic disciplines) also allows us to imagine ourselves as a persecuted minority that has fundamentally figured out what is going on, even if no one else wants to hear about it. When we write opinion pieces that are meant to be daring and critical, they fail to be either if the people reading them already share those opinions. They simply reinforce a preexisting orthodoxy.
Self-consciously taking on the posture of the gadfly, however, is not simply pointless; it is also pernicious. By celebrating the form of a disagreement rather than its substance, we cut off the possibility of real dialogue with others. Literature has the power to reach across political divides, but only when it is willing to actually meet people where they are, rather than retreating behind the barricades of a political identity. I fear that See’s rhetoric, because it emphasizes the identity of radicalism more than its content, provides unnecessary reinforcement to those who already agree with him while seeming unpleasantly self-righteous to those who don’t.
Writers and academics should, as See urges them to, be honest about their convictions and take positions that are uncomfortable either for them, personally, or in the context in which they are writing or teaching. But they should never forget that provocativeness is contingent on context. If they really want to frustrate and pique their audiences, they should go after the orthodoxies those audiences actually hold dear.