Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Underdog saves the day
by J J Cohen

I've written here before about the Code of Courtesy included in each syllabus I create (see also here). Like many readers of this blog I'm now back in the classroom -- summer, how could you be so fleeting? -- and yesterday had occasion to discuss the code with my new crop of 90 students. It's a large class, and because it lacks the intimacy of a seminar students sometimes imagine they are invisible and text, surf the internet, or whisper to nearby friends. I always frame this code positively: students owe each other the creation of a community where the focus is upon the speaker, whether that speaker is me or a fellow student; we possess few contemporary spaces in which we can be truly present to each other, and the classroom is one of them; paying attention in a world full of distractions takes practice and has rewards. Yesterday I pointed out to the class that I was keeping track of time on my iPhone, sitting on the lectern: I am as easily sidetracked as anyone, I admitted, and for that reason 75 minutes of focus in class is actually a pleasure.

Who knows how many I convinced. This semester marks the fourth time I've taught the course (Myths of Britain), and I have had success with its being a class in which the majority of those who attend pay attention to me and to each other rather than their cell phones, Facebook, and nearby friends. I'm hoping my luck holds. I was also thinking yesterday about how I am asking them to be docile, in the sense of "apt or willing to learn" (from Latin docere, to teach); I am also asking them to be disciplined in their bodies and comportment (arrive on time; don't leave the room; be focused and attentive). What I do not want them to be, though, is docile in the sense of intellectually submissive. As I talked about the Code of Courtesy I emphasized its closing lines: Never hesitate to ask a question, to express a doubt, or to request clarification. I told them if they always believe me, if they never challenge me to defend what I declare, then they are being intolerably passive, and should be ashamed. College is not a place where you swallow the knowledge that your teachers place in your mouth with a long spoon; I want them to tear their books apart as they debate with me. That would be taking the class seriously -- especially because the course is in large measure about how to formulate and defend an effective argument.

I'm writing all this because docility was on my mind yesterday, and only partly because I am always a little embarrassed to read the code of courtesy (I wish it were not necessary, even as long experience has taught me the good having it on the syllabus achieves). When I returned home from my own first day of class, I was greeted by Katherine, who'd had her first day of first grade. She was a little quiet, already engrossed in her homework, an exercise in which she had to write about herself and her family. She told me more about her day later, and although I knew she'd mainly enjoyed it, the change from kindergarten was weighing upon her: in first grade students do not move around all that much; the teacher has an eagle-eye and can spot inappropriate whispering, giggling, and bodily movements from across the room. It's a class, in other words, that teaches docility in every sense of the word. And I suppose that is what must happen when you are six and about to be launched into twelve or sixteen or more years of sitting at desks and listening and learning.

I felt better, though, when just before dinner Katherine asked me to cut two dog-ear shaped pieces of paper for her. She disappeared into her room for about twenty minutes, then emerged with a cape fashioned from a cloth napkin, on the back of which she had drawn a giant U. She was wearing the ears attached to her headband. Katherine had become Underdog, an animal who can fly, punch villains, and save the hapless from the machinations of world that puts them in places they'd rather not be. The hour she spent "flying" from chairs and beds was the perfect antidote to docility. Long may Underdog reign.


Roberta Magnani said...

Thanks for this refreshing post! It reminds me of Foucault's discussion of 'docile bodies' in disciplinary institutions; imagined as willing subjects of policing, they acquiesce in power and relinquish their bodies to it. I have always found that discussion profoundly saddening, so thank you, Underdog, for giving me a mental image (ears and cape included) that I can superimpose to the bleakness of the docility described by Foucault!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for your comment, Roberta. Foucault has been heavily on mind this morning as well: I've been writing about Agameben's reworking of Foucault's bios versus zoe distinction ... and in the draft of this ITM I'd mentioned Discipline and Punish. It just seemed TOO heavy, though, to leave in there: once you're in D&P it's hard to get back out.

Karl Steel said...

Great post, Jeffrey, and very useful to me as my semester gets up to speed. BTW, on Agamben on bios v zoe, see the Derrida I cite here: Derrida, Beast and the Sovereign, 315-17, 324-33. Briefly, JD's impatient with Agamben. No surprise?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl: that's just the reference I was looking for. I'd been reading Rosi Braidotti waxing lyrical about zoe as well in her "Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others" essay AND was trying to find a term for life force / life-as-force that can include the inorganic, so as you can imagine Foucault and Agamben's bios/zoe hierarchy wasn't really useful.

Karl Steel said...

Oh! The Braidotti sounds good.

Here's a ref you have on hand no doubt: Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 54 for example.

Eileen Joy said...

Wonderful post, Jeffrey. It reminds me of one of my favorite books that I read so many times as an undergraduate that the dust-jacket fell off:


It came out in the 1970s [I think?] and was related to teaching that Kozol did in Harlem after graduating from Harvard. It's a beautiful book that makes the case that public schools mainly just indoctrinate children to behave, and not to think creatively or independently. He was right, of course [some schools excepted, but they're in the minority, and usually private].

Go Underdog!

This old world is a new world said...

On a tangent ... in the election campaign here that concluded nearly two weeks ago, each of the two major parties kept vying for "underdog" status, as in Australia, that's the best way to garner votes (or support for a sports team). Now that we have a hung parliament, we don't hear talk of underdogs anymore. Instead, Labor and the Liberal-National coalition, with 72 seats each, are both claiming a kind of natural authority: top dog status, perhaps.

Equally, there's an odd mix of admiration and frustration with the various independents who are still to determine whether they'll help form a minority government, and with which party. Several of them are conservative, rural-based candidates who are decidedly undocile... leading some to remark that we are heading for a new form of parliamentary practice. A perversely productive indocility?

I adapted a form of your code of courtesy last semester. I had occasion to refer back to it only once, in a lecture group of about 80. I'll certainly use something like it again.

WV: ackbash (either a delicious Turkish sweet or aggressive student behaviour in class)