Friday, December 10, 2010

"My" students; a meditation on power and language

I Twitter. I like it: I keep in touch with far-flung colleagues, share and receive interesting and relevant links to material that I use in research and teaching and cocktail party conversation. I particularly like the economy of the format: 140 characters as a hard limit imposes a useful check on extravagant prose styling.

(See what I did there? That was waaaaay more than 140 characters.)

However useful the enforced to-the-pointness of Twitter is, though, I've lately come up--BUMP!--against my limit. My limit is this: when I write about my teaching, say, to send a tweet about how a student sent a great link for class, or about how the discussion was really great, or all the essays handed in on time, I find that I can't bring myself to say ...

"My students."

It grates. I also don't like to say "my graduate students" in reference to those enrolled in a class I'm teaching, and I don't like to say "my graduate students" in reference to those whose projects I supervise (and I supervise their projects; I don't, I'm careful to phrase, "supervise students"). I feel that this possessive construction is ... wrong? Kind of offensive? "My students," surely, belong only to themselves. "My graduate students," furthermore, are in large part independent scholars, who require my guidance (and the authority conveyed by my signature on their work) to meet their own goals.

Don't get me wrong: I'm in charge of the classroom, and I do the grading, and I am the expert on the subject matter, and generally I make and enforce the rules. It's not the power relations of teaching-qua-teaching or authority more generally that I quibble with here.

Talking in the possessive about "my undergrads" seems paternalistic in a really unnecessary way; talking in the possessive about "my grad students" seems like a form of academic currency where the number of them I can lay claim to says something about my level of power or importance. The possessive construction does not describe either the actual or the ideal relations between me and them. I feel like an ass when I talk like that, frankly. Then again, I feel like an ass when I nibble my nails and hem and haw about how to call "my students" something more unicorns-and-rainbows-appropriate than "my students." This can turn into hairsplittling of the very easily parodied kind, very quickly. Sigh.

As a writer, I don't like saying things the longer way. That's bad writing, usually. Like E. B. White, I want to be economical, precise, and clear when I write: "my students" is a lot less circuitous a locution than "the students enrolled in my first-year course" (whoops, there's another possessive--I guess it should be "the students enrolled in the first-year course I am teaching). This nicety feels like an overprecision, sometimes. And it leads to overlong and ugly sentences.

But then again, as a writer, I'm also attuned to the nuance of language, its implied power relations, its hierarchies. And I can't really get past feeling that the the possessive when employed with respect to students ... is kinda ideologically or practically, err ... icky.



  1. Oops. That's all I've been tweeting about (as I have been grading). Not really sure, in 140 characters, how to express "the students I teach" and whatever else I'm trying to say, plus link, plus hashtag. I guess (and here comes a gendered comment), I look at them in a matronly sort of way. They are under my care for the duration of the semester, and it is in large part my responsibility that they reach the goals of the class. Then again, I'm teaching largely developmental writers who need all the help they can get!

  2. Oh, I use "my students." All the time. I think it signals my protectiveness of them, my affection for them, and my sense of investment in them. Even when they are driving me crazy :)

  3. Ha, Claire, at my house it's always "my daughter" until she does something rotten, like get up at 6am, or put a tuna fish sandwich in her pants for a whole day, then it's "your daughter" while I poke at Tom to deal with it .... Same impulse ...

    Lee and Claire, yeah, I feel protective of them sometimes too, and I'm not sure how I feel about that, when that feeling resembles a lot the way I feel about my four year old.

  4. Agreed! I don't like that possessive either. Maybe we could take a leaf from Prince's book and call them "the students formerly known as mine." Not the solution but at least it's fewer characters.

  5. Hrm... calling them 'my' students helps me battle cynicism and frustration. It reminds me of my responsibility in our relationship and their learning outcomes.

  6. Pam, that's funny. Perhaps I will create a special typographical symbol for them ...

    SC, ahh .. I hadn't thought of that. It's entirely possible that sometimes saying "students enrolled in a class I am teaching" can be a responsibility dodge the same way saying "people travelling in the car I was driving" (instead of my passengers) when describing an accident outcome. It's weasely. Huh. Hadn't considered that. Will ponder.

    But then, sometimes, to battle cynicism, I have to disavow them a little bit ;-)


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