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Grading, Detroit, and Student Resistence

Last week I juxtaposed reading D. Georgakas’ and M. Surkin’s Detroit: I do mind dying (New York 1975) and grading a stack of lower division undergraduate papers. This got me thinking back to some posts from a couple months ago where I speculated that students disregard particular sets of instructions as a form of resistance. Georgakas and Surkin’s work looks at the organization of resistance particularly among minority (mostly African-American) auto workers in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They explore the rhetorical of the day and demonstrate the pervasive overlap between developing radical ideologies and the institutions and realities which promoted these positions. In their hands, grass-roots resistance to the dangerous, unrewarding, and soul-crushing work on the Detroit assembly line became the foundations for a genuine radical consciousness.

I am not going to argue that our students are on a course to a radical consciousness through their resistance to what they perceive to be an oppressive educational regime, but I will suggest that some of the patterns of student behaviors are sufficiently consistent to be regarded – from the perspective of behavior alone – as resistance. I’ll admit that my sample is small, but to my mind this has the benefit of capturing the “situatedness” of the acts of resistance. Moreover, I’ll contend that the forms of resistance are not merely the gap between teaching and learning that is typical of educational environments.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve encountered three forms of resistance.

1. The contraction. I insist that students do not use contractions in their writing. As a result, contractions have proliferated. They are particularly common in the opening paragraphs of papers.

2. Capitalization. I have begged students to observe the rules of capitalization and even conceded the “obscure” rules like whether to capitalize proper terms like “the crusades”. As a result, students have stopped capitalizing proper names, names of cities, and in some cases, even the first person pronoun.

3. Attendance. Over the last three weeks, I asked the students in my lower division, major’s course, to make it appoint to attend the final month of the semester where we will workshop writing and focus on preparing the final paper. The next class, my attendance dropped by over 60% and the following three weeks attendance was at its lowest point ever. Despite having taught for close to a decade, I can’t help feeling that asking students to attend constituted a kind of rookie mistake.

All three of these issues are not earthshaking forms of resistance. My students do not (as a rule) plagiarize, are polite and (generally) conscientious, do not complain in class about workload or teaching philosophy, and are as engaged in the learning process as you might expect students to be at the 100 and 200 level. In other words, their reluctance to follow seemingly simple guidelines are not symptomatic of an adversarial relationship between “management” and “labor”. Instead, I am regarding these measures as lines in the sand gestures marking off the limits of my authority and the students’ willingness to embrace my expectations. I suspect that I could get students to follow these guidelines with draconian measures (by definition out of the proportion to the significance of the rule being enforced), but I suspect that this would just displace student resistance elsewhere (which in the case of class attendance would probably be a good thing).

In short, I’ve come to expect resistance to certain policies, and have noted that they tend to coalesce around more marginal educational goals rather than core concepts of the course. This distinguishes it from the various large-scale union actions documented by Georgakas and Surkin, and places student resistance in another category of resistance in which various kinds of work-slowdowns and almost bureaucratized obstructions establish the limits of engagement in shared goals.

Of course identifying places and types of resistance places faculty in the potentially awkward position of seeing themselves as negotiators in the learning process between the content (and expectations of whatever groups manage the measurable learning outcome) and the student who ultimately the the final arbiter in whether any learning expectation is reasonable. While we have seen over the past few months the worse case scenario, when entire faculties (at the secondary level) are let go after failing to negotiate the divergent expectations successfully. At the university level, where students are adults, student resistance must be taken serious and articulated as active behavior with the potential to disrupt both the expectations of management and, ultimately, if not resolved, the functioning of society and the economy.

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