I Am Locutus of English Teachers?

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus of BorgI get that there are bad teachers out there.  I get that there are people teaching English classes who really shouldn’t be.  I get that some of these people hold advanced degrees and are currently in charge of undergraduate composition classes.  I get that plenty of people have been traumatized by bad teacher.

Here is the thing though:  English teachers are not a hive mind.  We disagree with one another, sometimes quite vehemently, about what constitutes good teaching.  Both English and pedagogy are dynamic fields of theory and practice that are constantly adjusting and changing as new knowledge is produced and old assumptions are challenged.

This is why I get chapped when, if my job comes up in casual conversation, I am suddenly called upon to answer for the transgressions of everyone’s 9th grade English teacher or freshman comp instructor.  This happens with acquaintances, with total strangers, with my father-in-law, with my grandfather. These last two pass up no opportunity to tell me–again–about the English prof who failed to recognize their latent genius back in college.  That teacher had the idiocy to give them C’s and made them feel like crap by using red ink to mark their comma errors, and now they hate English forevers.  And my role in the conversation is, I suppose, to confirm that I and all members of my profession traffic in bullshit.  Keep in mind that I get this from people who last took English classes during the Eisenhower administration.

In addition to reflecting the speaker’s insecurity and butthurtitude, these demands that I speak for all literature scholars and English teachers since Matthew Arnold also often takes the form of regressive attitudes about academic labor and the nature of tenure, which many individuals in my immediate circle seem to think is just handed out like candy to Trick or Treaters to any idiot who puts letters next to their name.  Also:  resentment about ever being asked to consider the experiences of women or minorities.

Samples from the past month or two:

Passing Acquaintance 1:  “Is there something about getting a PhD that makes a person’s head immediately go up their own ass?”

Me:  “Well, that will be me in about a year, so I guess you can let me know then.”

Passing Acquaintance 2:  “Are you like that teacher who tried to make me like Jane Austen back in college?”

Me: :…..:

Passing Acquaintance 2: “I mean really, why is Jane Austen considered to be a good writer?  I only read half of Sense and Sensibility and didn’t think it was so special.”

Me: “……”

Passing Acquaintance 1 (in a tone conveying disgust):  “My English prof is worthless.  She talks about feminism and how women are stereotyped all the time.  Just saying”

Grandfather:  “Blah blah blah. Tenure is a betrayal of the free market…protects bad teachers. Blah blah blah.”

Me:  [Something about intellectual freedom, the difficulty of attaining tenure, and the problems with applying free market principles to education].


Friend:  “You must cringe when you read my emails.  My grammar is so bad…”

Me:  “Actually, I don’t care.  I find you to be perfectly understandable, and I don’t expect texts or informal emails to be perfectly edited.”

Friend:  “…because I had this English teacher who used to jump all over me for not putting commas in the right place, and I’m a pretty bad speller, and…”

Me:  “Well, that was part of her job, and what I do in my job and in my personal life is different, and I make typos all the time because I’m human and and and…”  [Dying a little bit inside].


3 thoughts on “I Am Locutus of English Teachers?

  1. Nice post!
    Sometimes it works the other way, though, and students like me from the start because of a great teacher they had in high school.

  2. I find that — as a sixth and seventh grade teacher — hanging out in coffee houses is a great way to even the score. I demonstrate at every opportunity in conversation that teachers are knowledgable, competent, communicative, and friendly. I also try to convey that we’re connected to real life by teaching critical thinking and the processes of self-reflection.

    But I know hardly any other teachers who do as I do. Most of them sit in the school building for a few hours after school, prepping for the next day or the next week, and correcting papers. Then they go home, make dinner, read a book, and go to bed. As professionals, they’re rarely out in the public arena in places that I see (except in Wisconsin and Ohio right now).

    It’s a little discouraging that almost no one knows teachers except parents… and parents are far too concerned with their own children (or their own memories of 30-year old slights).

    No wonder we’re so easily attacked. We’re a profession that must be relatively gentle in temperament because we work with children. We’re also on the edges of public life — working for the public and yet not quite of it.

  3. Just in the name of attempting to offset the balance, I was an English major, loved every single one of the English classes I ever had from elementary school on, and taught the reading comprehension and writing sections of the SAT. 🙂 I apparently was born with an innate appreciation for commas.

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