On teaching not to transgress, or Not embodying ‘real utopias’, or My first lecture

‘Real utopias can be found wherever emancipatory ideals are embodied in existing institutions, practices, and proposals’ – said I. I was citing Erik Olin Wright. It was a lecture on ‘Sustainability, democracy and gender’, and I stood there, feeling unsustainably undemocratic, and I would get a very low score from gender scholars, as there was nothing emancipatory in the existing institutional setup and the practice I was carrying out.

The night before, as a good girl (I waited till 6pm when everyone had definitely long gone), I had slipped into the classroom in which I was to give the lecture. To my dismay, it was not large, it was not grand – it was grandiose. It was enormous. It was designed for two hundred people, whereas I was expecting fifty at most.

So much for the nice little cosy fireside chat I was planning, thought I, as I was descending from the entrance to the bottom of the hall, my steps echoing, feeling smaller and smaller, like Alice in Wonderland disappearing into a rabbit hole.

As a diligent student (teacher, in this case), I checked whether the Technology worked. Oh yes, because the cosy fireside chat was to be augmented with visual aids. ‘Launch room’, suggested the control panel. Ok, let’s launch this room, I mumbled. I plugged in my laptop, and there it was – my colourful title slide, the size of a screen in a cinema hall. I was to provide entertainment (and food for thought, so I hoped) for ninety minutes to an audience of fifty.

Standing at the bottom of this well and looking up to the top rows, so that my neck hurt, I realised there was no way for me to speak for ninety minutes so that those at the back could hear me, without destroying my voice chords. The Microphone, thought I. A little fireside chat needs to be augmented with a microphone. There was a ‘mygga’, a Bluetooth microphone of the type you attach to your clothes, with clumsy wires and a device to tuck into your belt or pocket. (I don’t know why they always make me think of Johan Rockström delivering the scientific facts about planetary boundaries to the awe-struck humanity.) To my alarm, I couldn’t get it to work. No, I am no Johan Rockström. That, or there must be a secret button. I dropped an email to the Gods of Technology at tec support, asking them to descend upon me the next morning and show it to me.

Another thing I realised was that the room was forcing me into a controlling, disconnected and fortified teacher position. I tried moving around and standing in different places but figured out that the only place I could stand was behind the lectern. If I stood anywhere else, I would be creating a shadow on my slides, myself blinded by the light of the projector, my face taking on whichever colour the slide was (not an aesthetic effect I aspired to achieve). Furthermore, I was separated from the students by a moat: there was a wooden bar separating the rows from the desk with the control panel and the lectern, and a gap in between. I was trapped in the little fortress of my lecture.

That will do, mumbled I, climbing up the stairs after having ‘shut down the room’ (‘Are you sure you want to shut down this room?’ – the control panel had asked me, in dismay).

The next day I delivered my immaculate lecture to the immaculate students, with immaculately working Technology (including the microphone on which a God of Technology kindly showed me the secret button). I kept to the time immaculately. I asked the students provocative questions – not too provocative, lagom provocative – just provocative enough. They didn’t want to be provoked, they didn’t want to answer my questions – they came to a lecture, and that’s what they wanted – a lecture. They didn’t want a chat. They obligingly answered my questions though, displaying immaculate upbringing. I don’t know if they found the lecture interesting, they may have, or they may have found it a waste of their time.

‘Teaching to transgress’, wrote bell hooks, ‘means to create excitement in the classroom’.

I was not creating any excitement. I was lagom excited myself, talking about Swedish environmental politics – but I could not infect the students with it. They listened, nodded and took notes. But none of us was transgressingly excited.

My utopia of a university is for it not to need to exist. In my utopian society, there is no need for a separate institution exercising academic freedom. We should not need to shut the gates and draw the bridges, so that we can exercise freedom and Reason on this side of the moat filled with … (fill in your own version of the moat). My utopia of a university is for it not to be a fortress where one has to shut themselves off from ‘politics’: from the brown boots, blue and golden boots, or any colour of boots. My utopia of a university would be to work itself out of its own job.

As I was standing down there, at the bottom of the well, in my cosy fortress, safe behind the wooden bar, I was not embodying that utopia.

None of us are. At this university, we are reading and talking about ‘decolonisation’, ‘transgressive research’ – but we are not teaching or researching to transgress, and we are not doing it in a decolonising manner (I hope this statement is only lagom provocative). We are teaching about decolonisation and transgression, but we are not decolonising, nor transgressing. I know that my more experienced colleagues would (rightfully) roll their eyes at this and say: We didn’t say we would. Read the small print. And it’s ok. We are doing our job. And so should you, and see it for the privilege it is.

I see it for the privilege it is, and I radically doubt myself (‘This will go away eventually’, say my more experienced colleagues).

As I was standing down there, at the bottom of the well, in my cosy fortress, I was performing the ritual of academic practice: the Lecture. I had never questioned this ritual when I was a student. I slept through them, wrote short stories through them, surfed the net through them. Why is it that now, on this side of the wooden bar, I started questioning? Why is it that now, being the perpetrator of education, I started questioning it? It is nice and cosy to think that somehow I earned the right to stand there and address a bunch of students (read: assault them with my colourful slides); I earned it through many years on the other side of the wooden bar, diligently writing lecture notes (read: sleeping, writing fiction and surfing). But something was amiss.

A social structure is reproduced through the enactment of its functions. Through the ritualistic performance of the Lecture, the academic fortress looms large. I feel safe behind its glass and concrete walls, but I wish it did not have to exist. I would dream to make this job obsolete, to will ourselves (teachers and researchers behind the glass walls) out of existence.

Or else, submit myself to it, unquestioningly. Because, deep down (will my more experienced colleagues agree?), it’s too much of a privilege to willingly give up.

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