Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Towards an Egalitarian Pedagogy

Hey, I know it's been a long time, this semester has been absolutely killer, but here is a new post that I am trying to get put on the blog Enough.

In the beginning of December, I will have turned in all of my graduate school applications, starting down the path for the next big step in my life. As I work myself through these processes, I can’t help but examine the way class plays a role in the decision to go into graduate school and the programs in general.

Obviously, the decision to go to graduate school is presupposed by the decision to go to college for an undergraduate degree – which in and of itself is a statement of class. Indeed, in one way, graduate school can be a tad more egalitarian in the fact if you are qualified you can often find funding. However, most of these fellowships go to students who have had the resources to excel, and acceptance to top grad programs is usually influenced by going to a top-tier school for undergrad. Thus, the acceptance into grad school is driven by class: first you must be able to afford 4 years of undergrad, and then from 5-7 years of graduate (assuming you are getting your Ph.D). This cost goes beyond tuition; it must also be possible for you to subsist on a meager salary – thus excluding any single parents from low-income backgrounds. Even before you can be accepted into graduate school, you also must be able to afford the $50-$75 application fee for every school you apply to. It is a good idea to apply to many schools in order to find a program that is (A) a good fit and (B) will give you funding.

Moving beyond the economic disparities in the application to grad school, there is the problem that I, as a cultural studies scholar, face in what I study and how it is studied. In my work, I use Marxist, post-colonial, and queer theory quite a bit – movements whose work is supposed to “liberate the voice” of the oppressed. But does it? When you read someone like Gramsci, who suggested the idea of hegemony, and Spivak, who rallied against the silencing of the subaltern, you realize: These people are doing EXACTLY what they are writing against. A dialogue about oppressed people is created and carried out in a register from which they have been systematically excluded! So what purpose does this theory hold? Obviously I love theory – I am going to spend 5 to 7 more years of my life studying it and then after that as my profession – but if theory begins and ends only in the ivory tower of academia, then it is useless. In fact, if theory remains only within the collegiate setting, then it no longer serves as a site of resistance; rather it functions as a cog in the machine that oppresses people – academics serve as the necessary dissidents in society, but ones that never actually challenge anything.

Thus, those of us who carry on the torch of academic enlightenment are left with a challenge: How can we, who have made our lives through theory, help people who have made their lives through the concrete better? Books on how to make money sell like crazy, books on Marxism do not. Books on heterosexual relationships that enforce gender stereotypes are bestsellers, and if you asked a random person on the street who Judith Butler was, how many do you think would? What good does it go for those who are educated to say, “The machine of capitalism is oiled with the blood of the worker” and “gender does not exist” if the majority of the world does not share our views? Should we be content to rest on our own laurels and degrees when there are people who desperately need to hear what we are writing in a language they can understand? The answer is no. The first step towards social change is education; let’s start with that.