[This post was originally published on December 5, 2013.]
I want to return to my recent critical moment during grading. In short, I was frustrated—not because of the amount of work involved (that’s just par for the course at this point) but because students had problems with things we had gone over in class again and again. I felt both angry and like a failure. Then I realized I was just stuck in Clockwork Christ mode.
“Clockwork Christ” is a term I coined over my years working new Graduate Teaching Assistants (it’s also the name/subject for an article I’d like to write some day, if my administrative work load ever lightens (as if) so, “dibs!”). The concept comes in part from my teaching experience but I am also indebted to the work of Richard E. Miller, especially in “The Arts of Complicity: Pragmatism and the Culture of Schooling” (College English1998). I use the term to index two dominant and contradictory narratives of teaching that circulate in culture, narratives that we as teachers often tend to inhabit, enact, and embody whether cast in the role by our students or ourselves.
It’s easy to identify these narratives. The first is teacher-as-Christ, the one who sacrifices everything so that students can experience the transformative powers of education. Based on your age, you know this figure from To Sir with Love, The Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Sister Act II, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, or School of Rock. Depending on your theoretical inclinations, you know it too through the work of Paulo Freire or Peter Elbow. The narrative is simple: teacher encounters victimized and distrustful students; teacher passionately devotes self to “saving” these students (often through unorthodox pedagogies); students are transformed.
But running alongside this narrative is a second, inverse narrative of teacher-as-cog, the mindless functionary of a bureaucracy bent on grinding students into dust. Based on your age, you know this figure from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.” Depending on your theoretical inclinations, you might find it in David Bartholomae or Gerald Graff.
Practically I see these narratives manifest in new teachers all the time. The same teacher will, one week, hold extra office hours on the weekend (though few if any students will show up) and the next week wait with a slathering snarl for some student to miss one more class so they can rigidly implement our attendance policy, fail them from the class, and have one less paper to grade.
I don’t think we can escape from these dual narratives but we can become aware of them, which is what I did while grading. More than that, we can deploy them.
I can’t believe I’m about to share this in the everlasting medium of the Web since I have always only shared it orally with the caveat I would strenuously disavow the words but, well, here goes… I offer you the “nuclear option.” The nuclear option foregrounds the disjuncture of these two narratives to “shock” students at the moment most needed. Before revealing it, there are some important points to keep in mind. First, in order for it to work you must learn your students’ names on the first day of class. If you can manage this, they will love you because they are nothing but a nameless face in every other class they are taking as first year students (Step One: Deploy Christ). Second, you can use this option once and only once. I wait for that point in the semester when students are just not doing the readings, not showing up with drafts, not “there” in any real sense. At that moment, I stand before them and I move to Step Two: Deploy Clockwork. I say something like this, “Look, if no one wants to do this work we can all just go home. I’m happy to do all I can to help you pass this class but the truth is it doesn’t really matter to me because I get paid the same whether you pass or fail.” The reaction is almost always the same: they feel guilty (their own Christ reaction) and therefore re-energized.
Ummm, in case anyone asks, I did not write this post.