Based on my personal observation, I think it’s generally fair to characterize the student-professor relationship in higher education as: perverted. I mean this in the sense of twisted, contorted, abnormal, corrupted. Picture an image in a hall of mirrors. That grotesque figure captures that of the generic person mutated into the institutional role-player. So, while the term perverse is typically used to name that which deviates from the norm, I am using it to name that which conforms to the norm—the norm, that is, of institutionalized education.
In How to Fix Education, I analyze this perverted relationship in terms of particular values found in our common neoliberal ideology. So, for instance, I consider perversion as the effect of economic and emotional vulnerability, the compulsion to be resilient, the manufactured stakes of disciplinary conformity, obedience to administrative authority, and the dual imperatives of affirmation and positivity. I also considered it through ideas found in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, especially proposition #16:
The spectacle is able to subject human beings to itself because the economy has already totally subjugated them. It is nothing other than the economy developing for itself. It is at once a faithful reflection of the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.
In short, both the neoliberal and spectacle analyses place the drive of the perverted instructor-student relationship within unavoidable economic necessity. What is ultimately at stake for both figures is livelihood and survival. The subjugation referred to thus imperceptibly produces actual subjects, that of “instructor” and “student.” I assume that my readers know what these roles entail. But you may be less willing to admit that anything like perversion defines them.
Here, I’d only ask you to give thought to the effects of but one element on the human relationship between the student and the instructor: that of the contractual syllabus. (Let’s put aside the several pages of boilerplate concerning expectations and responsibilities, grading policies, university policies, and so on.) Consider: the syllabus’s smothering, spontaneity-killing semester-long work plan; its overdetermining rigidity; its top-down decision-making; its coerciveness via the threat of punishment (points deducted) and promise of a potential reward (a good grade); its final payoff in “credits earned,” a spectral value no more substantial than the shadiest crypto-currency. Add to this the fact that the form of the course syllabus is overdetermined by pre-established norms (originating when and where—medieval Europe?—and to what end—selection and control?). Let’s not forget, too, what is lost in this practice of syllabus creation, namely, the ideas and intelligence of the students. (You may think that this is an illegitimate point—what do students know?!—but I will argue precisely this point in a future point.)
Henry David Thoreau remarked that education makes a straight canal out of a meandering brook. The same is true for the syllabus. It forces a rigid trajectory that necessarily hinders the serendipity, surprise, and spontaneity that always unfold within, indeed, are definitive of, a genuine learning environment. The perverted effects of the overly-scripted, straight-jacketed feature of status quo education called the syllabus is compounded by many additional features, such as grading, assignments, percentages, rubrics, and exams. (Topics for future posts!)
As someone who has lived this scenario semester after semester for years, it could not be more plainly obvious to me that such practices twist, contort, and render impossible a genuine human relationship between student and instructor. Why? Because what inevitably ensues is, at best, a relationship based on power differentiation, competition and hierarchical ranking, coercive authoritarianism, the desire to please (both student and instructor get evaluated at the end of the semester). At worst, what ensues is a disingenuous relationship founded on mistrust, dishonesty, coercion, cheating, and trickery.
I am not speaking of trickery, etc., as an act committed only by the student. Both the student and the instructor, recall, are implicated in “the production” of this thing called the neoliberal classroom, and hence equally suffer the “distorting objectification of the producers,” that is, of “student” and “instructor,” each playing their institutional role. Let’s be honest, how many assignments amount to mere tricks by the instructor to “get the student to do the reading”? And how much student cheating typically goes on, these days in particular, with the proliferation of term-paper factories and the easy Googling of exam answers?
Is this not a farce? None of this happens within the context of a genuine human relationship. A genuine human relationship is the very foundation for the creation of an education-rich environment, one where learning happens as a matter of course—no coercive assignments required! Without this basic condition being met, something is going on in the classroom (preparation for the capitalist juggernaut?), but it is not learning.
I would like to present a resource that can help you think about how to create a more genuine relationship with those people whom, once they pass through the threshold into the classroom, we call students. The idea is the generic. Although I mean it in the technical sense derived from contemporary thinker François Laruelle (b. 1937), I stumbled on the basic reality behind the idea on my own.
When I was young, my mother, a therapist, had her private practice in our home. Fascinated, I would sometimes sit as near as I could to the door during a session. Because of the white noise machine, it was hard to make out what was being said. But I caught enough to have this realization: it’s just two people sitting in a room having a face-to-face conversation. Of course, behind this simple conversation lay a vast apparatus that potentially compromised that “just:” the social reputation of therapy and psychology; the thick cultural representations of “patient” and “therapist;” the American tyranny of positivity and paranoia of sadness; the necessity of advanced university degrees; the baroque Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the capitalist imperative to “function” at all costs; the labyrinth of insurance companies and their categories for billing, and so on. All of these elements increase the likelihood that the genuine relationship between two people sitting in a room having a face-to-face conversation contorts into the perverse one of “therapist” and “patient/client.” I’m sure my readers can imagine the pretensions, strain, and role-playing involved in the latter. My mother, by contrast, maintained the primacy of generic human dialogue. The result was that she had a widespread reputation as a uniquely gifted “therapist,” one who deeply affected the lives of others.
So, how does any of this amount to a resource for educators? The basic idea is this: a necessary condition for a genuine educational environment is for “instructor” and “student” to operate as generic humans. In simple language, if you want learning to happen, you have to trash your expensive institutional masquerades.
The terms genuine and generic are related. Each derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *gene-, “to give birth, to beget, to produce.” Derived from the Latin genuinus, English genuine has the additional connotation of “natural, not acquired.” And, derived from Latin genus, English generic additionally implies “not special.”
A pharmacological example presents itself. Like the considerably less expensive generic allergy medicine at the pharmacy (which, recall, has the exact same active ingredient as the expensive brand version), a genuine relationship is one whose cost is minimized. How? Because it has been stripped of the cost-bearing additives of display, hype, branding, aggrandizement, fantasy, etc. Such additives are not only wholly superfluous to the goal at hand, they are perverting. They mutate the product out of its “natural” element (as basic remedy) into a kind of fetishized object (as magical medicinal cure), and, in so doing, they serve to corrupt consumers, and their wallets, via the illusion of added value.
What might the additives be that “the instructor” brings to the classroom? (Maybe: authoritarian, managerial, unassailable expert, one who knows best, person in charge, etc?) What are the additives that accrue to “students” once they pass the threshold into the classroom? (Maybe: immature, uninterested, concerned only with a good grade, knows little, even ignorant, etc?) I believe that, whatever they are, these superfluous qualities will be largely invisible. They are invisible because they appear to us as natural and inevitable—that’s what a teacher is! that’s obviously true about a student! They are hallucinations rendered real through representation, social agreement, and repetition.
From the perspective of the generic, instructor and students are just people in a room discussing x-material. With this view in mind, imagine one of those people lecturing all the others for, say, an hour and a half. Imagine one of them so utterly dominating the course of things that all the others stop even trying to speak up, or, indeed, to think at all (much less offer criticisms and counterpoints). Imagine virtually all of those people becoming bored by the semester-long exercise, so bored that they become disinterested and disengaged, and must resort to trickery to endure. A farce, don’t you think?
I mentioned the thinker François Laruelle. Though devoted to issues closer to philosophy, religion, aesthetics, and politics, Laruelle’s thought, I believe, has much to offer an anarchist conception of education. His idea of the generic, for instance, asks us to empty out the overdetermining universalized forces at work in the figures of “instructor” and “student.” What makes such a move essential is the fact that “the generic is capable of supporting a multiplicity of heterogeneous acts or predicates.” That is, on the basis on the mere human being or person we might hoist a para-infinite number of potential predicates, for instance, those many representations that characterize “teacher” and “student.”
All evidence points to the fact that, in social relations, the arising of representations is inevitable. This fact does not invalidate the generic stance. On the contrary, it makes it all the more necessary. For while “the generic is endowed with extension“—that is, with infinite potential descriptors—it is ultimately “without totality or singularity, thus underdetermined, non-absolute.” (François Laruelle, from The Generic Orientation of Non-Standard Aesthetics.)
So, the next time the distorting specters of “professor” and “student” loom in a learning relation, revert to the generic. I predict that something wonderful, something genuine, will be emerge. The only price to pay is that you, the professor or teacher or instructor, become nothing special.