Some Thoughts on Educational Failure

Many years ago I was a TA for a class called Communication in Everyday Life. The course was taught by a long time sessional at Simon Fraser’s School of Communication. In some ways it was a good class to teach because I learnt a lot very quickly. But it was chaotic. The instructor was a genius, and perhaps one of the most captivating lecturers I have had the great pleasure to work for. We have become good friends since then. Still, his mind meant that the class was a whirlwind tour of deconstructivist linguistics and then its subsequent application to power and beliefs like sciences, medicines, religions and politics. The course hinged on Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It well-suited the instructor’s teaching personality.

Still, many of the students would come to this class thinking it was something altogether different. To the uninitiated, the apparently generic title certainly did not give any indication of post war French thought. (In fairness the course description was fairly clear, but then again most students don’t speak this theoretical vernacular, and because of its particular institutional designation the course was, and still is, a bridge which most undergrads had to cross to advance in the program.) These lectures about differance caused many students to lock down with fear. Indeed, the instructor enjoyed some confusion, because confusion and ambivalence was an indication of minds confronting the long chain of significant associations until they traced the apparent limits of action and agency. Against this background, I thought it my job to provide assurance to students that it ‘made sense,’ and give confidence that I could guide them through the mid-terms, exams, and essays.

At this stage I was hardly the best TA. I had moved from South African to Western Canada for graduate studies and was still learning the local educational culture, trying to figure out the discrepancy between what students did and did not know and what they were expected to know. In the meantime I had to rely upon the tradition I came from which was one of relative distance and formality, a tradition that was antithetical to my new location. So despite my efforts I came across as gruff, callous, indifferent: This hampered my self-set goals. And by the time I realized, it was too late for that term.

In any case, between the instructor’s lecturing style, the material, and my TA abilities, the fear of failure was never far from students’ minds. This was doubly so when asked to write papers on self-selected topics without much direction from the stage. While the ‘A students’ always wrote ‘A papers,’ the vast majority of students were befuddled and some took to recycling papers from other courses just to try get by. We caught a fair number of those. (Once I was marking with a friend, and she read a paper that was so garbled and convoluted she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. An hour later I read her a paper that made no sense to me. She jumped up, rumbled through her stack, and pulled out the earlier paper. It was the same nonsensical paper submitted to two different classes.) Still, almost all the papers were sincerely concerned with and made vague allusions to technology as a general category being an accelerating force of social life. These papers walked a tightrope trying to exonerate the inventors and system which produced technology, while hand waving at the potential rate of social change. I spent a good portion of my time and energy trying to encourage students to consider the role of ideology. But sadly, for a course that spent so much time concerned with beliefs, there was little to be found in the papers themselves. Aside from a lack of passion, or desire to look beyond the given, there was little genuine understanding of class, politics, or larger overarching inter-generational projects. And indeed the instructor did little to clear the issue, for from his vantage social change to take one example was but another “grand narrative” that had to be binned, for as much as Marx bore the honorific ‘master of suspicion,’ substantive method was nevertheless replaced by iconoclastic cliché.

To be honest, I was a failure, most of those papers were failures, and the course was a failure. And in the instructor’s mind, this made it a success, apparently because the entire course was a performative exercise in deconstructing the educational institution and undermining traditional forms of authority, the lectern included. This didn’t sit well with me, and is still unsettling. This is not because of traces that have decentered my understanding of the classroom, but because I think of it specifically as an ethical lapse, where students’ good will is squandered. I saw the difference between students walking into and out of that class. Too many had become cynical with university and less interested in intellectual life. So as far as I was concerned, it was an unnecessary failure of our educational mission.

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Author: Scott Timcke

I’m a Lecturer in the Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies. I use Marxist methods to study social inequality, the digital mode of production, the causes and consequences of imperial violence in the early 21st Century.

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