On the Pleasures and Dangers of Professing Politics / by Matt Ruben

Posted March 29th, 2010 at 1:10 pm.

I’m not an academic who periodically “engages” in the civic realm. To the contrary, public action has shaped my intellectual development from the beginning. Student government and the 1980s South Africa divestment movement occupied as much of my first college year as classes did. Amnesty International, anti-war activism, and the alternative student newspaper dominated the ensuing years, while I pursued a major that melded English with philosophy, popular culture, and political history.

In grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, seminar papers and field exams competed, often unsuccessfully, with pro-choice clinic defense, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), welfare rights work, protesting university outsourcing, and co-hosting a local political talk show. And my emerging doctoral thesis focused on the cultural manifestations of contemporary American political changes. Engagement in the public sphere continued to bully my academic imagination, spurring me to add an urban studies certification to my English doctorate, so I could continue my immersion in Philadelphia’s political geography.

I fancied myself a political intellectual, my scholarly writing influenced and given street cred by my activism. That seemed more or less the end of it. Indeed, when I began teaching writing at Bryn Mawr College in September 2000, I focused on urban issues, but the classroom seemed worlds away from the Philadelphia streets where I’d dodged tear gas and billy clubs as a media rep for the Republican National Convention protestors just a few weeks earlier.

As time has gone on, though, I’ve found my pedagogy becoming thoroughly informed, even transformed, by my civic life. My course shifted to the topic of poverty, specifically how middle-class Americans understand (or don’t understand) poverty and see (or don’t see) the poor. This shift was motivated less by the broad intellectual rewards—of which there certainly are many—of the topic than by the decidedly local juxtaposition of Bryn Mawr’s Main Line home with the blighted communities of North Philadelphia just a few miles away; and by the even-closer proximity of my fast-changing home of Northern Liberties to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods on the East Coast.

These thoughts of geographical and class consciousness are never far from my mind, and they affect both what and how I teach. The professor-student relationship and the imparting of specialized academic knowledge no longer form the all-encompassing pedagogical framework they once did. I used to survey the faces in my classroom and see students, and then individuals. Now I see “people in the world,” in the deceptively simple vernacular of a good friend of mine. I see them as citizens who exist, wittingly or not, in relation to other people and places they’ve lived in, encountered, and never even heard of. I push them to read and analyze texts not only to come to intellectual realizations (though those are crucially important), but also to better understand the world in general and their place in it. In this regard it helps that I teach an Emily Balch Seminar, a course not focused primarily on imparting specific disciplinary knowledge. It’s also tremendously useful for helping my students think about writing as a fundamentally communicative (as opposed to expressive) process, because they come to see their reader not only as an audience for a performance or rhetorical exercise, but also as a person situated amidst the places, policies, and passions of our world.

Conversely, as my activist energies have channeled themselves into the formerly unthinkably square role of president of my neighborhood association, I’ve come to see the pedagogical imperative in leadership and representation. I resisted this realization for a long time, because I’ve always detected a strange mixture of ivory tower arrogance and intellectual self-hatred in the notion that we must sit back and observe, waiting for a “teachable moment” when we can make an “intervention.” There’s an assumption buried in there that we possess superior knowledge, which can be imparted only when circumstances put us and “regular folks” in a position to comprehend each other. In my experience, such a view constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of politics. Almost every moment is a teachable moment, but by the same token, the idealized teachable moment never really arrives. There is no Platonic pedagogy of sublime communication to an utterly attentive audience (a point that applies to the classroom too, as my excellent but chattering, iPhone-addled students would no doubt affirm).

Charged with running neighborhood meetings, fielding citizen complaints, raising money, dealing with elected officials, negotiating with zoning attorneys, representing the community to the press, and responding to the occasional subpoena, I am constantly confronted with diverse, unpredictable audiences to and for whom I must speak and to whom I must be accountable. Assuming nothing, explaining everything, putting oneself in others’ shoes, inferring their interests and motivations—these have become everyday survival skills, immensely helpful in both the classroom and the meeting hall.

Despite the increasingly intimate connection I’ve felt between activism and pedagogy, and despite—or because of—how politically charged my subject matter is, there is one link I studiously avoid: I don’t bring my own political viewpoints into the classroom. Now, I’m no fool: Like everyone else my worldview surely oozes from my pores, inflecting what I say. And yet, as my faculty observers in grad school always remarked, and as questions from my pupils tend to bear out, students usually have a tough time figuring out what my politics are. I don’t keep secrets: They get a general sense that I live somewhere left of center; they grasp how deeply I think racism is ingrained in American culture; and, when at some point a student inevitably begins a comment with, “I don’t want to sound like a feminist, but…,” they find out I’m a feminist.

But when it comes to more specific political themes and current events, I am no fan of “putting my cards on the table.” I can think of no better way to undermine the pedagogical enterprise than to present my views as “The Truth,” with the concomitant delusion that I’m simply one member of the classroom community whose pronouncements hold no special weight. Pull that trick in community politics and you’ll alienate most of your constituents, while lulling the rest into passivity and complacency. Similarly, there’s no better way to make young minds resist my pedagogical aims than by pushing my views on them. Nor is there any better way to tamp down the critical faculties I’m encouraging them to develop, than by using my authority to “bring them along” politically.

Perhaps most importantly, and in keeping with the parity of politics and professing with which I started this essay, dictating to my students would cheapen the enterprise of politics itself. If I believe passionately that my view of the world is on intimate terms with critical inquiry and careful analysis—or, more bluntly, if I believe the facts show I’m right—then I should have the courage of my convictions and let my students think for themselves.

Matt Ruben teaches in the Emily Balch Seminar Program and English Department at Bryn Mawr College and in the Writing Program at Haverford College. He ran unsuccessfully for City Council in Philadelphia in 2007 and received a Best of Philly 2009 award for “Best Politician, City” from Philadelphia Magazine.

Filed under: Issue 4 by Diana Vergara

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