This post can go wrong in many ways. It is not about sex. This post can go wrong in many other ways. It really is not about sex. Stop reading right now if you think it’s about sex. Really. Stop. Since I’ve used the word sex so many times, search engines will probably direct those looking for sex to this post that is really not about sex.
So be it.
We are entering the fourth week of the semester. By this point, I have evaluated at least one assignment from my students. I know their names and I’m beginning to get a sense of their personalities, even the silent ones. I have a pretty good sense of the ones who are effortlessly brilliant, the ones who work hard and produce excellent results, the slackers who work hard sometimes, the very smart who don’t quite understand academic protocols and will amaze their instructors in a few years, and the disengaged.
The class is following a trajectory that I follow every semester, even cultivate: it’s getting harder.
The ideas are getting bigger, even as how we get to them becomes more localized. For instance, we spent a lot of time asking why Langston Hughes uses the term “torture” in “The White Ones.” Time well spent as I insisted that we think and re-think Hughes’s language and voice. Hughes is a cascade of sound—one needs to linger for the full effect, for the spray and the shimmers.
The White Ones
I do not hate you,
For your faces are beautiful, too.
I do not hate you,
Your faces are whirling lights of splendor and loveliness, too.
Yet why do you torture me,
O, white strong ones,
Why do you torture me?—Langston Hughes
As the semester continues, I demand more.
I reason that the more students know, the more they should be able to accomplish.
Difficulty is not measured in terms of extra writing—some years ago, a now very famous student complained that my class was not rigorous because I didn’t require long papers. I’m hoping that in the interim he’s learned about the rigor of the short paper, especially as he’s now working as an editor. Handling complex ideas lucidly and concisely is difficult. Anyone who has condensed a dissertation into a pithy 50 words knows what I mean.
Pithy. Lucid. Condensed.
What I ask for is counterintuitive: increasing complexity rearranges thinking and writing. One struggles to engage new knowledge. As we encounter new ideas, our prose tends to become knotty, circular, tangled, clotted. I can barely read what I wrote when I first encountered theory or when I was reading Lacan every single morning during my first year of grad school. My first drafts are word-traps, syntax-snares, semantic-follies.
I know that what I’m asking for is difficult.
And I ask for it.
I do so as an act of faith in my students. I raise the bar because I believe they can reach it. Even surpass it.
But it always comes as a shock.
Those whose first assignments got Bs blanch when their second assignments get Ds. Those who turned in good first work are surprised when I describe subsequent work as adequate or terrible, both words I use. While I sympathize with the knotty prose of ideas being worked on, I do not indulge sloppy thinking. I can tell the difference.
The semester gets harder. I ask for more.
Some students get it. Try harder. Do more. Others attempt to slide. Those who have decided early on that they’ll “take a C” discover that I am very comfortable handing out Fs. Some give up. Decide that the encounter with difficulty is not worth it. I respect this.
I respect it.
But I don’t reward it.
It gets harder.