on being responsible

by Feng

This is in regards to Jake Levine’s post on being responsible for Loughner. It struck a chord with me as a first time instructor. I taught intro to creative writing last semester, and at the end of the semester had the option of completing a journal assignment for my pedagogy class on the topic of intellectual responsibility. Basically, one of the topics I could write about was the answer to the question: what are our responsibilities as intellectuals/faculty members of a university? I could not bring myself to respond to that question because I felt too ashamed for similar reasons to those listed in Jake’s blog post…

I will give one example of my failure. Aside from feeling like a fraud the entire time as a “poet instructor” ( ok, the quackery is my thing, not one of the relevant ones), there was a critical incident relating to LGBT issues which I was helpless to bring to a productive discussion. The climate of my classroom was unlike Jake’s in that mine was mostly a homogeneous soup of privileged apathy bubbles. When a group, without intending any malice, made one of my queer students uncomfortable enough to abruptly leave the class, I tried to address the issues underlying speech and oppression but couldn’t, probably because of lack of charisma, get past the class’s amused/laughing response to the situation. The group activity was an exercise exploring forms, and students were told to “translate” a piece of text into a different form (such as a cooking recipe or a letter). One of the examples I brought was a piece by David Wojnarowicz. I told groups to pick an issue they cared about, expecting mostly things like pollution or facebook, and write it into one of the forms. They also had the option of using the text examples with each other. But one group decide to rewrite this into a cooking recipe.

Obviously, it became a group of white straight persons creating a recipe for queerness (naked boy sandwich). When the offended student left without notice, the group, and the class, failed to understand why something intended to be “light hearted” could possibly be ethically questionable. They could not understand why it was offensive. I doubt that they understood the real pain and expression of suffocation under prejudice within the DW piece, that what they were doing by transforming it into a parody as who they were was an act of further assault. I tried and failed to address the issue adequately. I wasn’t prepared to handle the situation, and my comments seemed to contribute to the absurd comicality that the class seemed to be taking on. Not what I wanted!!! But instead of pursuing the topic further, I gave in to the superficial attitude of the class and moved on. I later spoke to the student who left privately, but did not address the incident after the end of that class.

As someone who believes that empathy, awareness, and rigor in reflection are essential to ethical conduct as human beings an any society, and as someone in a position of authority with the power to lead others in these directions (what I think is the responsibility of the intellectual), I had failed to follow through with my duty with integrity. Tyler Clementi committed suicide last year because of insensitivity, ignorance, and lack of empathy…

I intend to be a better instructor in the future. I don’t know how to deal with the intersection of politics and teaching / poetry and politics, but I hope to figure it out.