Monday, March 23, 2015

Authority: Academic and Other (8 Feb. 2014)

"… you will respect my authoritah!" — Eric Cartman
            In Joe Haldeman's classic SF/Vietnam-War novel The Forever War (1972 f. — the composition dates are complicated), there's a dialog between newly-minted Major William Mandella and Colonel Jack Kynock, Mandella's "Temporal Orientation Officer" (it has been a long war, involving moving humans through the galaxy faster than light, so time within the novel also gets complicated).
            Relevant here is Kynock's discussion with Mandella of Mandella's psychology, about which Kynock may know more than Mandella, since he's seen Mandella's profile, which is too highly classified for the eyes of a mere major. Mandella questions his own competence for command, and Kynock tells him that, actually, Mandella does "have a certain potential" for leadership. "But it would be along the lines of a teacher or minister; you would have to lead from empathy, compassion. You have the desire to impose your ideas on other people, but not your will. Which means, you're right, you'll made a hell of a bad officer unless you shape up" (opening of part IV, "Major Mandella").
            That is, "shape up" from the point of view of the Army.
            I found this dialog interesting on more than esthetic grounds. I had been a member of both a high school and college fraternity, had considered a military career, and I ended up teaching. The fraternity experience — the college part at least — I'll weave in and out of this essay. My potential military career story starts with my taking two years of high school ROTC, and then quitting in part because I had stopped growing at 5'2" and, at least at that time, I was two inches too short to be an officer in any of the military services of the United States. I was simultaneously, however, two inches too tall to be "4F" and "unsuitable for military service": so I still had to take two years of college ROTC, face getting my ass drafted and sent to Vietnam, and couldn't even be a cadet platoon sergeant, 'cause it'd look silly to have a platoon march with so short a man in a visible position. I did not have a good attitude toward the University of Illinois ROTC requirement.
            Still, I appreciated getting introduced to history in college ROTC, and spending a few hours a week in a quasi-military context was useful for my fraternity work. I could advise new-initiate active brothers to be alert in ROTC before they dealt with pledges; new initiates, I advised, should imitate the regular Army officers and NCOs and avoid acting like the cadet officers: i.e., they should be polite and confident and not assholes on their way to being fragged by their own troops — although a US-led hot war in Vietnam with fragged second-lieutenants mostly came later. (Not to say that a variety of unfriendly fire bringing down over-eager second lieutenants was something new with Vietnam, but "fragging" as a term was new.)
            Anyway, I took note of the behavior of regular Army officers because I was and am somewhat like William Mandella, but just somewhat; Mandella may be a nicer person than I am — and Joe Haldeman is a much nicer person. In part, I did want to impose my will on other guys, though surprised when I got away with it.
            A new initiate once asked me, "'Lich, what would you have done if one of us pledges hadn't obeyed you?" I paused and said, "Oh. (beat) That never occurred to me." And then I waited another beat until the irony became obvious, and I laughed and admitted to mild amazement each time I was obeyed. The trick, I explained to the guy, is to give an order courteously and sounding like it never crossed your mind that you'd be told to fuck off. And then I passed on that advice to emulate regular Army officers and avoid acting like the cadet variety. (The eventually fragged Doug Neidermeyer in Animal House [1978] had real-world antecedents.)
            So from the frat angle I was interested in authority, and also as a new student of history and just beginning student of human behavior. Older boys and young men are fairly easy to order around, but they're mostly used to taking orders from their parental-age elders. It takes a bit of doing to condition pledges to accept authority from other guys pretty much their own age and additional effort to get active brothers to accept the authority of people they live with, know, and have elected.
            I was intrigued that pledges would take my orders and actives (mostly) follow the rules; and when we had to come up with a new pledge policy after one particularly disastrous semester, I worked with the group devising new policies, even doing a bit of research.
            And, what the hell, I was also interested in my own psychology since I got off as much as the next guy — or almost; we had a couple or three really weird brothers — ahem, I was interested because this side of downright pathology I got off as much as most on the "S" part of the old frat-lodge S&M fun and games.
            As the 1960s wore on though, and as I started my teaching career, my concerns got more serious.
            With the 1960s wearing on, so did the Vietnam War; and, more personally, I saw violence much less deadly but much, much closer to home — I was in Chicago for the riots of 1968 — and I started reading on violence and on authority, most especially Stanley Milgram's experiments from 1963 f. studies of, as stated in the title of his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority.
            Less sensationally, I found myself "behind the big desk" in classrooms and in authority, and uncomfortable.
            I had no problem with imposing my will on pledges if I could: I never ordered them to do anything really wrong (for which the next part would not be justification), and they really did have the choice to say "fuck you" to me and follow that up with "and just fuck it!" and depledge. There was strong social pressure to stick with pledging, and moving would be inconvenient; but it could be done.
            All the courses I taught when I started teaching were required courses, and if my students dropped my section, there could be bigger inconveniences than moving from a fraternity into a dorm: like not getting into another section and slowing down their "satisfactory progress toward the degree" and, in some cases, putting in danger a scholarship or a draft deferment.
            More was at stake, and giving a low grade offered me no straight-forward Thomas Hobbesian "sudden glory" or Marquis de Sadean kick from imposing my will on — as in harming — other people. From my high school fraternity on, the bigger kick for me was to indirectly "impose […] ideas on other people," to get them to do what I wanted them to do, by convincing them to do it.
            Or getting them to believe the truth of my interpretation of … whatever.
            I wanted the students to respect and accept my authority as a teacher, but my authority, as someone who knew the material and could help them learn it and pick up some handy skills (like writing and critical thinking).
            Do note my arrogance here: I wanted to be respected for my authority, for what I knew and could do and to teach. I wanted respect for my personal authority, a variety not given me and enforced by the University and the State, but authority totally mine. I did not want subservience from students because as "instructor or record" I would assign each a grade.
            First off, subservience from students as students kind of disgusted me. I hadn't gotten subservience from pledges in either my high school nor college fraternity, and by the time I started teaching it was "been there, done that" for getting obedience. More important perhaps, in the classroom the bureaucratic "authority" of the grade (etc.) undermined my authority as a scholar and teacher and intellectual. I couldn't be sure if I'd convinced a student, or if the student went along with my ideas just to suck up.
            I suspect most of the students also couldn't be sure. Certainly, one guy said in class, looking a little shaken, "I'll write whatever it takes to get an 'A' …; I guess that makes me kind of a whore."
            Uh, yeah.
            I'm not a Christian or a Platonist, and I do not celebrate Mind over body — or even separate the two; but if it is wrong to prostitute one's body for a grade, to suck up to an instructor physically, it is also wrong — if more socially and academically acceptable — to prostitute one's integrity by pretending to agree when one isn't convinced.
            Now there's no problem if a good Christian student starts off an essay with a phrase like, "In a secular, materialist (godless and probably damnable) reading …" — and goes on to apply that approach to a literary text or an issue in history or a problem in evolutionary biology. Indeed, it would be unethical for an instructor to downgrade for such an opening: one can insist that a student know something or other, not that a student believe. As John Stuart Mill stated in a particularly strong illustration of the principle, "[…] there is no reasonable objection to examining an atheist in the evidences of Christianity, provided he is not required to profess a belief in them." Similarly, it would've been okay if one of my devout Freudian instructors insisted on my handing in a rigorous Freudian reading of, say, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, provided s/he had no problem with a brief cover note noting that I found ideological Freudianism, let's say unpersuasive (let's not say in addition, at least not on a cover letter, "and pernicious as clinical psychology and a little creepy").
            Haldeman's Major William Mandella is a better man than I am because he would want "to lead from empathy, compassion" as a primary motivation. I approve of empathy and compassion, but I'm a bit more into the arrogance of thinking I have something to say — obviously, since I write essays — and as a teacher I was pretty sure I had useful things to teach. That is the sort of authority I wanted acknowledged. I wanted not so much to impose my ideas on my students or anyone else but to have those ideas respected: listened to, considered, thought about, and respected enough to challenge.

            I know and knew that if my teaching didn't lead to credits and grades and a diploma, that I would've had precious few students and soon no job — and might've gotten punched out on my way to be fired. Still, I didn't like that kind of external authority because it undermined authority I that is — so long as my mind holds — intrinsic to me.

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