Thanks for taking the survey today. I’ve already looked them over and see some things I might do to make the course more effective. Here are some general remarks on what you told me:
Almost everyone noted the reluctance with which people speak in class. This was pretty much a universal theme: that nobody’s really talking and that’s kind of a drag.
More than a few recommended the small-group strategy, though others were less enthusiastic. When you end up in a group where few or none of the other students have completed the reading assignment, someone wrote, you end up having to carry most of the weight.
Two people admitted that they had not done any reading nor consulted the links posted in blog entries. To those anonymous students let me say that while your candor is admirable if, in the third week of the semester, you can’t be bothered to do the work then it seems unlikely you’ll do much if any of it in the months to come. You might save yourself the trouble and drop the course.
Two final remarks I feel compelled to address.
In response to the question of how the course is going so far somebody wrote “Feels like something I took in highschool.” To which, were I overly-defensive, I might reply “And sometimes it feels like I’m teaching highschool.” But that would be unkind and almost always untrue.
The second remark was interesting for the opportunity it gives me to speak on a theme integral to the course. One student wrote, again in answer to the question of how the course is going, “VERY LIBERAL, IGNORES ASIAN PERSPECTIVE.” There are 3 things I need to say about that.
1. I don’t identify as a political liberal (I’m guessing the student does not mean to call me an economic liberal, which is a different matter. Most so-called conservatives are economic liberals or neo-liberals, which is to say they believe in the myth of a self-regulating market which will solve all of humanity’s challenges). This is important to me because I don’t like my ideas to be misconstrued. If you need to pigeonhole me in terms of political identity then you should call me a marxist (note the lower-case ‘m’) because that is my intellectual tradition. I have friends who self-describe as revolutionary communist, anarchist, libertarian, and– in one notable case– Fourierist . And of course I know many Democrats and Republicans. As the semester passes, we’ll have a chance to investigate at least some of the incredibly variegated political history of the United States. If, at present, our political options sometimes seem to be confined to two remarkably similar choices, America’s political past is startlingly crowded with parties: Know-Nothing, Copperhead, Whig, Peace and Freedom, SWP, CPUSA, Wobbly, Free Soil, Populist, and many others.
2. What we learn in this class will not be the product of an impossible– indeed, non-existent– purely neutral perspective. All knowledge is situated because knowledge is more than a mere aggregate of facts. Remember the distinction I made between fact and value? Knowledge incorporates values, especially in the Humanities. There’s simply no space outside of the situation we occupy from which to cast “fair and balanced” decisions. This is not to say that facts are not important. (And let me assure you my own ideological and intellectual commitments will never warp or misrepresent a fact in order to make a case.) Most thinkers would not argue for the fallacy of total objectivity because they understand that our comprehension of the world is always invested: with our personal experiences, our geographical and historical location, etc. Those who claim to be objective (note I don’t say “strive for objectivity”) are simply unwilling or unable to acknowledge that, as Howard Zinn once said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
3. In a few weeks we will be reading Maxine Hong Kingston‘s remarkable book China Men. For two to three weeks we will discuss Chinese-American history, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We will learn about the anti-Chinese pogroms which occurred in California in the 1870s, the effects of the Asian Exclusion Act, and think about the oddness of that all too capacious word “Asian”, a term that is supposed to describe not only Koreans but Sri Lankans, not just Phở but naan. We may even discover that Asia, as such, does not exist.
Here is one hard change to the syllabus which is a result of the survey: we will not be reading Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland. Though some students indicated the reading load was quite reasonable, others seemed a bit traumatized. By dropping this text we can focus on the others with greater attention. Instead, we will spend exactly one week on the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, the subject of the novel). I’ll give you on-line reading assignments by this Friday, the 13th of February.
Thanks again for helping. Remember to read through chapter 13 in Jacobs’ narrative. Or, if you’re fired up, finish it.