I used to teach underclassmen reading and writing at a big university. The class I was assigned to teach most was called “The Interpretation of Literature.” It was required for all non-English majors, meaning there were dozens of sections of it each semester and students were as enthusiastic about taking it as you might be about going to the DMV. As I passed out syllabi on the first day, they’d tell me that their roommate or sister or whoever had told them that this class was the worst. They’d whine when I said that attendance and participation were mandatory. They’d whine about the length of whatever novels I’d assigned. They’d whine at the number of essays they’d have to write. I was just 22, hardly older than my students and yet I did not understand why, despite their lack of interest in either reading or writing — or learning, apparently—they had decided to nonetheless spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend university.
My first year of teaching was hard. My second year, somehow, was worse. That fall, I had been assigned two sections and they were each full, meaning I had about fifty students total. I also had the misfortune of getting a disproportionate number of folks who wore sweatpants to class, were in fraternities and sororities, and made very clear their dislike of me and what I was there to teach.
My students mostly did attend, though they often did so not having read whatever poem or short story or play or book we were going to talk about that day. Trying to goad them into having discussions, the activity around which the class was centered, was difficult. Sometimes I begged them. Sometimes I threatened them. Sometimes I gave up. We sat in lots of silences.
Most frustratingly, my students, who were almost all white and from the midwest, would not disagree with one another. If I asked a very open-ended question, something intended to get a conversation going, and one student answered, the others would nod.
“Anyone else?” I’d ask, perhaps pointing at someone else.
“Pretty much the same as what he said,” the answer would come.
Some of my students made a habit of referring to the class as “interp to lit,” a phrase that I explained to them made no sense, a phrase that some would nonetheless type at the top of their papers.
Many of my students believed they deserved high grades, regardless, it seemed, of how hard they actually worked. Once I’d begun handing back papers, a stream of them would come to office hours to complain and ask for a B- instead of a C+, the B+ instead of the B. They’d tell me the reasons they felt they deserved better and I would listen. I’d often have to figure out ways to explain that if they wanted better grades, they’d have to start actually engaging their minds. One student groaned when I answered he would have probably written a better paper if he had read the entire book he was supposedly analyzing. Sometimes I was stalwart. Sometimes I was sick of fighting someone and just gave the A-, fine.
I caught multiple plagiarists that fall. I gave Fs. Sometimes I lost control of the classroom altogether. Once, a student stood up and answered his phone and when I, astonished, asked him what he was doing, he shushed me. I was baffled that these people were legally adults. I wondered whether I was having such a hard time because of some flaw I had. I wondered whether my problems weren’t partly the fact that I was a woman, and petit and blonde at that, someone my male students especially didn’t want to take seriously.
By Thanksgiving, I feared I couldn’t do it anymore. I had flown back east to visit my boyfriend and sat in his kitchen sobbing. I hated the kind of person my students were making me, and I hated that I couldn’t get to them, no matter what I did, no matter how much I cared. My boyfriend and I strategized. About two weeks of class remained and on my syllabus I’d listed the most challenging text yet, Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. I knew they wouldn’t read it. They’d read a paragraph, deem it “hard,” and there would be no chance we’d have a meaningful discussion about slavery or race or the nature of evil. I thought about how lousy their final essays would be, and about all the fights over grades I wouldn’t want to have.
So I decided to do something weird.
That week in class, I told my students they weren’t going to have to read the last text on the syllabus and they literally cheered. I then popped in a VHS tape and together we watched Disney’s Aladdin. They were giggly. They couldn’t believe that I was doing something easy and fun. Once we’d watched the entire movie, I restarted the tape, and told them now we were going to read it. They were confused.
I played the movie and paused it every minute or so. I’d then ask them what we’d seen. I’d ask them what arguments were being made about men or women or class or race. I’d ask them to notice what things were being said about Islam, or about the Middle East, or about “the east” as a whole. We discussed the nature of Aladdin’s apparent poverty and homelessness. We discussed whether Jasmine’s betrothal to him ultimately achieves the freedom she craved. We discussed the fact that all the bad guys were short and brown and had vaguely foreign accents, and all the good guys were more fair and tall.
My students, for the first time, were learning. They were learning about feminism and race and class and orientalism. They were learning that all texts make arguments at us, arguments we may not even realize we’re learning. For those last few classes, teaching was a joy. The evaluations I received were still brutal — one student called me a “bitch”—but they all said the one thing they’d liked was Aladdin.
I’ve thought about that fall a lot recently, even though it’s not a time I enjoy remembering. I think this is because that was the closest I’ve been to the kinds of Americans who are now seriously considering electing Donald Trump. By that I mean, people who hate books, and who’ve eschewed learning the human lessons that literature can teach. People who are uncurious, people who crave conformity, and who believe that things that are different are bad. People who have an unfailing belief that they deserve the best.
Here is a lesson I learned that fall: it felt bad to hate my students. It felt good to reach them. In order to reach them, I had to try to set hate aside. I had to overcome my own ego and elitism, and I had to ultimately have empathy and patience with them and their ignorance, their laziness, their fear. Would I have rather talked about Benito Cereno? Absolutely. But I’m glad I taught Aladdin.
I think what I’m saying is: it is not going to be easy, but we have to remain in conversation with those Americans whose minds, crucially, we now need to reach.
Oh and you all should read Benito Cereno.
This piece will be a part of this book, which is due out from Scribner in August, and which will, evidently, rule:
Saying here on record that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is one of our finest living essayists.
(It touches on #cancelcolbert. I recommend this video by Suey Park, who started that hashtag, about the whole affair and how it ruined her life. It’s fucking horrible.)
This is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time:
A merry winterMarch/apocalypse to you. I recommend you make some Japanese curry rice. Read this poem called “Philip Seymour Hoffman” by Nick Flynn. See the digital world through someone else’s eyes. Listen to the new Kendrick. Listen to the new Kanye, but also The Read’s discussion of Kanye. If you’re a teacher especially, check out this post by professor and writer Helen Boyd called “Teaching While White.” Check out this thing called Horizontal History.
Here’s the only non-garbage news story right now.
Here’s s0me quality political analysis by Cher:
And here’s a GIF of Cher:
p.s. Stoked to read this.