Written by Ryan Lackey, Diversity Team Member
College classrooms are, sometimes, eerily quiet spaces. As a graduate teaching assistant, I often teach in the early morning or (especially during the long Oregon winters) in the dark, postprandial classes. Long eyelids, drooping postures, feeble wrestling with coffee-thermos tops: all the familiar, archetypical images. For all our handwringing about technological distraction and attention spans shrinking like liberal-arts budgets, paying attention to anything, for anyone, at eight in the morning or nine at night, draws on energy sometimes absent—for students, for instructors.
But the reason for my classroom’s occasional quietude isn’t drowsiness, usually. On the days my students can’t really be bothered to discuss the reading, the silence, really, emerges from twinned feelings: apathy and fear. The classroom fills with long distances—between my students and the text, and between the students themselves. I think it’s something like the default position of new students in a writing class.
Why the apathy? My students are bright. At a land-grant university like Oregon State, where the powerhouse programs are engineering, agriculture, the hard sciences, my classes rarely include liberal-arts majors—many students test out of the introductory writing requisite. Regardless, my students are incredibly impressive: They pursue challenging majors, they navigate the bewildering collegiate social sphere, and they arrive at Oregon State with long lists of skills and accolades. In my classroom, they dissect, say, an essay by Anne Lamott with laboratory precision. Once adjusted to academic composition and research (my students arrive with vastly dissimilar backgrounds in writing and reading), they produce essays with rigorous citations, well-reasoned arguments, and incisive points.
But rarely do they perform anything like vivacity. I understand that reading, writing, aren’t universal passions, and thankfully so—our obsessions and fanaticisms are especially positive and fertile spaces of diversity. And I certainly never approached my own undergraduate courses in chemistry with anything like fervor. But asked to identify their own passions, my students, uncannily, all offer the same flat blinks. And a few prefabricated responses canvass everyone’s motivations for their majors: It’s good money or It’s what my Mom does or It’s what I was good at in school. Obsession, vocation—these things are never cited. Apathy is an imperfect term for this anhedonia of passion, which arises (I’m guessing) from myriad factors, always contingent on individual context—schools, families, cultures, traumas.
Alongside this almost-apathy appears a fear of being wrong (and, worse, of observation in, and thereby an assigned identification with, one’s wrongness). Together, the unfamiliar contexts of college and the pedagogy of writing and rhetoric—both ask students to state truths and values, and thereby assume positions of vulnerability—intensify that fear, which is social and academic (in grade-based evaluation, after all, wrongness and failure are literally synonymous) and personal and much more. On the first day of term, I try to mitigate a few of these anxieties (which, I tell them, I face too—teaching is hardly an act of invulnerability) by asking them to revel in failure, to consider the bravery of voicing and then reconsidering a wrong answer in public a triumph. The incitement takes for some, not many. Our public discourse, I believe, could benefit from similar reflections.
My own passion lies in books, and talking about books, and talking about where others’ passions lie. I encountered David Foster Wallace’s work first in This is Water, and I proceeded through the nonfiction, through the short fiction, the novels, the apocrypha. What I like best about Wallace’s work, which has helped stoke my own passion into graduate school and (incredibly, thankfully) teaching, is the passionate credulity with which his work, at its best, treats questions of ethics and spirituality and duty and sacrifice—all the squishy foundations of the clichés to which he so frequently returns. On the best days, my favorite days, my students brighten, and the classroom hums—conversations shoots around, and the voices seize that edge: What I’m feeling feels very urgent, and I want to share it with you. Hopefully, we then make the leap: I also want to hear your urgencies; please, share them, if you like. So, too, hum the best conversations about anything: food, politics, sports, books.
But as in my classroom on our languid days, apathy and fear threaten these conversations and efforts towards diversity. Speaking personally, at least: Some days my own thoughts and opinions just feel so right, or I’m too tired or anxious to leap that chasm into someone else’s complexity, and I’d rather remain quiet, still. Or another voice seems so passionate and quite possibly very right that it might force me back into the mire of uncertainty and insecurity, or makes me feel inadequate, or forces me to confront the web of privilege and oppression always around us, and that fear stops up my ability to reach out.
I hope to help the diversity committee—a community of voices within another, bigger community—sponsor voices and passions. Maggie Nelson suggests that “the best way to find out how people feel . . . is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.” Passion, whether the love for an author and their works, or a commitment to a community, might then mean a pursuit and defense of multivocality—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because the best thing about passion is that it’s a shouting from the heart that can be voiced and totally silent, ready to listen.
Ryan Lackey is a graduate student at Oregon State University. His research interests include 20th– and 21st-century American literature, particularly the writers associated with the New Sincerity, as well as postmodern figurations of religion. He can be reached through the technological mysteries of email at email@example.com