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dumdli dee
2002-07-15 - 2:23 p.m.

I'm quite pleased with what I wrote for uni today, so I'm going to post an edited version here. It's a work-in-progress, so, if you've got any helpful criticisms to make, don't hesitate. ;)

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Two stories.

Itís the beginning of class. Iíve just sat down, and someone up front has said, ďweíll start by handing back your essays.Ē Immediately Iím in a different frame of mind. I try to think back to what the essay was about, what answer I gave, how confident I was when I handed it in. I donít know how I went. Suddenly all I want is to know my mark, how well I did. Everything else can be sorted out once I know. I try to prepare myself for a bad mark. Itís ok, I tell myself, itís ok if you do badly, itís not worth that much of the final mark anyway. Youíll do fine. But these reassurances are flimsy. I am held, suspended, tense, I donít know who I am, all I can focus on is staying outwardly composed until the stack of papers reaches me. No-one must see that I care.

Someone is struggling to understand something in class. As I listen to their explanation of what gives them difficulty, it makes perfect sense to me. I know the position theyíre in, I can feel it myself as they describe it, but Iím also very happy because I know exactly how to explain it to them, to clear it up. I canít help myself, I interject, and the words come to me as I speak them. I donít need to think of or prepare an answer Ė itís as though I were explaining something to myself, or rehearsing a speech. As the explanation goes on, I detect a sign of comprehension in the other studentís eyes, and so I finish my sentence, the explanation complete.

What Iíve tried to describe here is two models of how something can happen in the classroom. Different illustrations could have been used Ė the first story could easily be replaced with one about being asked a question to which you donít know the answer, for example. But I want to use these stories to ask a question about control. In both stories, the narrator is not in control of what is happening. One thing I find myself doing when talking about control and the lack thereof is dividing events into levels at which one has control and at which one does not have control. This is the Marxian attitude to agency: ďMan makes history, but not in circumstances of his choosing.Ē A more commonplace way of putting would be to say, you canít choose want happens to you, but you can choose how you respond to what happens to you. But experience teaches that this is not exactly correct, either. This leads to ever more complex models of the layers of the self, or perhaps the divisions are made in time, and we get formulations like, you canít choose whether or not youíre angry, but you can decide what to do with that anger, or, you may not have been able to do the right thing at the time, but you can set it right now. The emphasis in these formulations is that virtue and control go together. Whatever is undesirable occurs due to uncontrollable factors; and it is up to whatever faculties or agencies are under control to push away the undesirable, or to push on towards what is desirable.

The formulations, it seems to me now, are based on a kind of vanity, and also in a lack of trust for what the world does without our control.

What this controlling fantasy would dictate about the two stories, I would imagine, is that, by better self-mastery, it would be possible to overcome the fear in the first story. In fact, if we pay attention to this story, itís possible to see that this is already happening. Which is to say, the tightness and rigidity of the protagonistís posture, the determination not to let people around them see what they are going through, comes from this idea that whatever is bad can be overcome by a more determined discipline. What it would say about the second story is less certainÖ in a way I think, when I am in a controlling frame of mind, I donít know how to respond to stories like this one. Itís unsettling, because something good comes from a process over which there is no control. Who exactly is responsible for the explanation is even unclear Ė is it the person speaking, or the person listening? What is most unsettling, I suspect, is that I recognize in this story a good which is more than the simple elimination of something bad, and this good is something that can never be created under the auspices of discipline or domination or self-mastery. I can be quite sullen in the face of a story like this, because what I want to be able to say is, I can do that, or, I can do better than that, but I know itís not true. Even if I have done that in the past, it wasnít me, I didnít make it happen, so Iíve no real ownership over the event.

What I want to suggest is that both of these stories may have taken place in the same course, maybe even on the same day. A fearful attitude which says, we must strive towards always creating these nice stories, these happy events, is mistaken for two reasons. First, this dialogue was not willed into existence, and I do not believe it could be. But second, it partakes very much of the nature of the first story, which is the sort of thing that we might want to try to eliminate.

It is this controlling fantasy, which works first always to eliminate what is bad, and has a troubled relationship with efforts to improve what is good, that results in efforts to legislate virtue. Which is to say, social control becomes the public reflection of the faith that is invested in self-control or self-mastery as the source of virtue. Bureaucracy and law; whatever is decreed in law to be the good is given to bureaucracy to give effect to. Bureaucracy has its own place and its own virtues, but it is not a welcome visitor in the classroom. No matter how well-intentioned the impulse the drives bureaucratic reforms into the classroom, the result cannot help but be a stifling of the atmosphere, a leaden pall over the necessary liveliness which can makes learning and teaching a joy. But more than this, the good intentions themselves may be at fault. Because they are intended as an ideal, as perfection, as something that is better than this world as it is, or to make this world better than it is, then they stumble when they are brought into reality. Something goes wrong, and the blaming begins. ďIt would have worked perfectly if only people hadnítÖĒ and this resentful stance dwells on what people did incorrectly, or incorrectly failed to do.

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"She was a rare thing

Fine as a bee's wing

So fine that I might crush her where she lay" - Richard Thompson


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