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Excerpt from Walking On Water

Surrendering Authority (p. 134)

From chapter "Significance"

I’m fully aware that my gender gives me advantages in teaching the way I do (I’m also fully aware that my gender gives me advantages in almost every aspect of my life). It’s relatively easy to surrender authority when I carry in my chromosomes a marker that makes it (culturally) inherent. It helps also that I’m white, and that I’m fairly tall. Each of these attributes is vested by the culture with enough power that I could remove the more external vestments as easily and ultimately with as little threat to my authority as I did my suit jacket.

Were I a woman, this surrender of authority might have been seen as a sign of weakness. That’s too bad, because there are people (lots of them) who perceive the world as a never-ending struggle for power (that is, who are very frightened), and who are therefore more likely—whether student, instructor, administrator, or anyone else—to attempt to exploit this perceived weakness, and generally be a pain in the ass. Note, by the way, that I’m not saying that to rebel against authority is necessarily to be a pain in the ass, although there are times it’s certainly uncomfortable for all concerned. I’m saying that there are people, once again, lots of them, who are uncomfortable—whether they admit it or not, and frankly the ones who don’t admit it are harder to deal with—with women holding any sort of power over them, and who are tempted to show themselves one-up on any woman who does not cling to the external trappings and internal rigidity of power, that is, any woman who does not comport herself like Margaret Thatcher, that is, like a man in a dress. Of course many whites would similarly resent nonwhites holding power over them.

It’s not quite true that I surrendered authority, anyway. It would be more accurate to say I set some of it aside. But I certainly kept it within reach, the psychological equivalent of the alarm I wear on my belt at the prison. The check-mark system was a step in the right direction, but I still imposed it from outside. I still took roll. I still determined the classroom agenda, and though I didn’t use it, I still had the power to flunk anyone I chose, for any reason I chose.

And let’s be honest about my role in class discussions. I can say all I want about trying to run an egalitarian classroom, but the truth is that what I say, on almost any subject, carries far more weight in my classroom than what any other individual might say. A teacher speaks, and students pay more attention than if another student says the same thing, or something that refutes it. I remember, to take a trivial example, my seventh-grade science teacher telling us all that it’s possible to drink enough water to fill up your stomach and esophagus, and then to walk over to a sink, lean your face forward, and pour the water back out. If one of my friends had said that, I would have disbelieved and disremembered it pretty quickly. But because my teacher said it, I believed it at the time, and still remember. The same can be said for many other absurd things my teachers said, including most of what was taught in math, science, history, economics, and so on.

And aren’t I pushing an agenda, too, simply by my choice of what we talk about it class? Am I not making a political statement by choosing to have them write about the execution of a revolutionary? Would I not be making a different statement by showing pictures of Wall Street traders, Marines planting a flag on Iwo Jima (or shooting civilians in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, essentially ad infinitum)? Of course any picture I present—any action I take or do not take—is intensely political, even if only for what it ignores. What if I present the façade of running an apolitical class and show a picture of a smiling (white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, nuclear) family sitting down for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner? That would, of course, present my students with one side of a picture, and point them toward writing their way down one particular path. Showing them a picture of that turkey living out its short, wretched life in a factory farm and asking them to write about that would take them down a different path, as would showing them a line drawing of Indians slaughtered by these same Pilgrims whose giving of thanks we commemorate.

Of coursethe teacher is going to have more voice in a classroom. That’s one reason it’s so crucial for me to not to grade papers: I need to delink my opinions (political and otherwise) from the very real coercive power of grades.

This question of grades being coercive, and of politics being inherent in teaching, applies not only to writing, but to all fields. Mathematics, science, economics, history, religion, are all just as deeply and necessarily political. To believe they’re not—to believe, for example, that science (or mathematics, economics, history, religion, and so forth: choose your poison) describes the world as it is, rather than acting as a filter that removes all information that does not fit the model and colors the information that remains—is in itself to take a position, one that is all the more powerful and dangerous because it is invisible to the one who holds it.