Wednesday, February 06, 2008

This Thing That We Do

I've been tagged by Philosophers' Playground with the teaching meme. There have already been so many varied responses to this question of why we teach the things that we do, that I won't begin to be able to respond to all the different issues raised. So I will simply pluck at one or two of the strands of this far-flung discussion that resonate with my most recent teaching. This past week I have been teaching Marx and Zizek. Why?

I'm tempted to simply answer: "Because that's what I've been hired to do." The job aspect of teaching in the academy sometimes tends to disappear behind the presumed pleasures of teaching. After all, any job that pays this poorly must be a labor of love, and variations on "I love teaching" have been one of the most frequently recurring themes in response to this meme. Exceptions to this can be found in posts from Professor Zero and The Little Professor (along with a response at HTUW) who both express their ambivalence about this love of teaching. But even those who profess such a love will, I think, admit that on at least some days love is the last thing they feel in the classroom. This would be the Marxist answer in me. I teach because that's the place within the current social division of labor where I can best sell my labor-power. Every other reason for teaching tends to melt away when confronted by this simple economic fact.

However, one of Slavoj Zizek's oft repeated riffs is on the ways our culture has forced us to internalize our duties such that not only must we do them, we must enjoy them as well.

Superego is the reversal of the permissive "You May!" into the prescriptive "You Must!", the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. We all know the formula of Kant's unconditional imperative: "Du canst, denn du sollst". You can do your duty, because you must do it. Superego turns this around into "You must, because you can." ... The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. It can be overcome in two opposite ways. On one hand, we have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so–called totalitarian post–traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you "Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not." It tells you not only "You must obey my orders and do your duty" but "You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it." It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him. This passage from traditional authoritarian power to modern totalitarianism can be precisely rendered through superego in an old joke of mine. Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? "I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty." A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: "You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to." Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say "I have a choice, I will not do it." I promise your father will say "What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how she loves you? How could you do this to her?" That’s superego. On the other hand, we have the opposite paradox of the pleasure itself whose pursuit turns into duty. In a permissive society, subjects experience the need to have a good time, to really enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and consequently feel guilty for failing to be happy.
This passage also resonates for me with much of Limited, Inc.'s ongoing interrogation of the pursuit of happiness as a new and strangely misplaced goal of life.

Teaching Marx and Zizek provides me with a way to raise these issues for my students who also face a similar bind of being forced first to take classes, and then forced to enjoy them. After all, why would someone pay all that money and spend all that time reading and studying subjects they don't enjoy?

I confess, I enjoy this part of my teaching. D'oh!

Rather than tag new victims and require them to respond to this meme, I'm simply going to ask for volunteers. If you would like to respond to this meme, just leave a comment below with a link to your post. Of course, you only have to respond if you would enjoy it...


  1. Not a whole post, just a couple of comments. I've got the courses I am assigned to teach, which I do strictly because it is part of my job, although they *can* be made interesting and "fun" but sometimes must merely be seen as a responsibility. Then there are the courses I choose to teach, which are interesting to me, and they don't feel like work, and I tend to put too much time into them (to count for work) since it is entertaining.

    Pursuit of happiness. Weird, as I'll bet it didn't mean happiness joy-joy, just some sort of stability and contentment as opposed to working as a serf or something and not knowing if one would have enough grain stored up to get through the winter. I think "happiness" meant in that 18th century formulation "a decent situation" ... in which one could then thrive, etc.

    I do not understand since my goals were always more like autonomy, achievement, freedom - with happiness as sort of an underlying disposition, a passing emotion, a byproduct, etc. Perhaps, though, I just don't get it since my general disposition is sunny and relaxed, I don't seek happiness per se, but other things.

    Then again I am absolutely useless when I'm unhappy. I know people who can be productive while miserable and I cannot. At that point the first imperative has to be to get happy, and the only way I've found to do that is not to seek "happiness" the feeling, but to exorcise demons and set myself on a path I like. I have sometimes envied the constitutionally unhappy because they seem better able than I to tolerate bad situations. I, on the other hand, have to be happy and I don't get happy by resetting my chemical balances - happiness comes from having energy and a worthwhile place to put it, feeling somewhat capable, having some degree of autonomy and freedom.

    So this is disjointed and not fully formulated. But, yeah - I don't "love" teaching but I do not mind it at all, and I am *very* interested in the material, and I think it is fun to share it with others, and I do genuinely like people. Still I would not do it for free.

  2. So I am back. This post set the tone for a lovely afternoon so I thought I'd say so.

    "I don't have to love this to like it and do it right!" is very freeing.

    What I note among faculty is that they seem to either "love" what they are doing or resent it, feel like drudges, etc. I've been caught in that see-saw (and my blog shows it).

    I could ruminate a lot on why it is people think they have to suffer to be virtuous (the drudgery and overwork side of things).

    But: I remember being 20 and applying to graduate school. I thought: "This field is very interesting to me, I would like to live in that town, and they will pay me to work, so let's go." A consideration of "love" didn't go into it.

    It was only much later, in faculty-dom, that I started hearing the rhetoric of "love" and it was always associated with low pay - pay too low to support research, I mean - and other serious woes. I come to the conclusion that "you must love" is a sort of drug and causes block. I do, however, argue that you must enjoy - not enjoy everything, but you must still enjoy, it isn't good for the organism not to. (Perhaps it is, Pollyannaishly - ? - that you must love yourself as you do this work, something I got trained out of.)

    Note: I always find that much standard advice on approaching academia is laughable when applied to dating / marriage. No reputable therapist would say that if you love the other person enough everything will be all right.

  3. Thanks for joining the meme--we added you to the inventory of posts over at Free Exchange.

  4. Cero - I'm glad this post brightened up an afternoon for you -- hearing that certainly brightened my day. Does your recent post on law school have some connection with this topic? Is that a job where the expectation to love it might be less?

  5. Hm - perhaps. But mainly, being a professor of literature though was never more than something I thought I'd like and liked. It was never something I thought worth sacrificing one's life for, though.

    Now, what I could do with a law degree, on the other hand, is (at least in my fantasy) something that WOULD be worth fighting for, sacrificing for, etc.

  6. OR, from the perspective of a sabbatical: I love teaching courses in the minor, the major, and up. I'm happy to teach earlier courses and gen ed courses if I have some kind of curricular control / am not just pushing students like cogs through a machine.