Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mr. Greene v. Mr. Brown

I want to tell you about something. Something I've carried inside myself for a number of years now. Perhaps if I were a different kind of person I wouldn't need to talk about it. I'm not. My need to tell it is stronger than your need to hear it. Because, however, there are a number of teachers and former students of mine who may read these meanderings from time to time, I need to tell this story all the more.
About 7 or 8 years ago I was asked if I would allow a university PhD. candidate to observe an English class. At first I decided against it because I was scheduled to have a student teacher placed with me the second half of the semester in question. After some urging, however, at the request of a respected colleague, I agreed. Soon I was committing to extra meetings, signing documents and explaining to the class in question who the young woman who thoughtfully pounded away on a laptop in the rear of the classroom three times a week was. I knew that the topic of her dissertation involved literacy and gender borders within the classroom. But Ms. Goodly never went into much detail beyond that. I knew, too, that I'd be under a microscope and that I probably would be hyper conscious of what was said or unsaid, by whom, when and how. Therefore, I decided to just let it be. I really couldn't do otherwise. I know, after 33 years of teaching, that each class has a different chemistry and personality, I know my own strengths and weaknesses. My vulnerabilities, my excesses; my motives and my skills.
I have had many observers, from student teachers, administrators, parents, grad students, state committee members, colleagues, and friends. Some were present for just a day, some for weeks on end. Like the Norwegian researcher who took notes, photos and memories back to Norway with her.
Observations followed. Ms. Goodly completed interviews, and showed me some some transcripts. More interviews followed. Finally I received a copy of the dissertation with a note. "You might not agree with everything," OK, no problem, I thought. We'll talk. What could I possibly not agree with? Curiosity peaked, I read the dissertation. In the text I was called Mr. Brown and my school referred to as Montana H.S. (*Note, the novel Montana 1948 was part of my curriculum) As I read, my jaw dropped. I got bashed. Misunderstood, misinterpreted, misquoted, messed up. I don't think I slept for a week. "You might not agree with everything," Really now.
Now I know that dissertations have to argue a strong line. I know that grad school and academia is cutthroat; a haven for intellectualizing opportunists. (I can't believe I said that) I truly wasn't prepared for how my classroom was presented. So many things seemed out of context. This "Mr. Brown" was my enemy.
One illustration here. On the first day of class I usually do some sort of icebreaker. Because in Honors Junior English classes many of the students know one another, I went with something a little different. I asked students to answer a question on the reverse side of a 3 x5 card with routine information. "What is there that most people don't know about you?" Then I ask permission to anonymously read the responses. I never read them if someone is uncomfortable. It's a game. It helps people relax and often gets them talking. Sometimes the responses are funny, sometimes poignant. I immediately learn things about my audience. Who react?, Who says what? Who doesn't? Who laughs? Who doesn't?
When I read on one card: I LOVE GUYS!!!! I read it like it was written. "Somebody in here said I LOVE GUYS!!! with multiple exclamation marks." Immediately a male student responded, "I hope it's a guy." Laughter...nervous laughter. It's a classroom full of 32 teenagers. Of course there are gay and straight and probably questioning students in that mix. Somehow when this scene made the dissertation it was used as the basis of how talking about gender and gender identity was defined in my classroom. It only gets worse. I'm not going to defend myself against a litany of what I consider to be arguable actions, comments, observations, and inaccuracies. I only want to say that the person riding my back to a tenured faculty position had a total of 3 years teaching experience in three different private school settings. At least one of which was not in this country.
I'm sure I'm not completely innocent, but I feel the need to say that as a heterosexual male, I'm going to bring that perspective to what and how I teach. I'm not sure what troubles me more, the original "findings" or the fact that my accuser has never taken the time to talk with me about it. Given the busy schedules we kept it's understandable. But when, a month ago, I sent her a congratulatory email at an eastern university where she now professes, she never even acknowledged it. Please excuse me this little indulgence. I'll entertain any questions you might have in a forthright manner. Mr. Brown has left the building.


Cameron McPherson Smith said...

hey, bruce, wow, i can imagine that must be infuriating. not just anoying but infuriating...especially that she didn't even email back to you! maybe you should ask if you can come and observe her classes...seriously, your post got me thinking about what 'native' people worldwide might have to say about what some anthropologists have written about them...and i'm glad i picked archaeology, the study of extinct rather than living societies :) about your experience, at first i was tempted to say, 'wll that's just some hot-headed grad student,' but as you said, she rode your back to her tenure-track position. there just ahs to be a way to make her aware of how she misrepresented you...cheers, cameron

Blues Greene said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm especially interested in your thoughts because as a teacher an a man, I value your insight. I know other educators who have gone to et PhD's in educational research, but both taught for many years beforehand. They reminded me how competitive and argumentative and particularly driving the dissertations must be in that area. I sometimes imagine myself sitting in on her oral exams or having a chance to explain my side. I even tallied up how many male and female writers were used in my classes because that always comes up. (It was dead even 10 of each) And then there is also the important component of my teaching philosophy that places student writing on equal footing wit the literature read in class. I'm really over this; I just needed to write about it.

baron said...

good grief. In forty years I had numerous and very appreciative student teachers but nothing like this... do someone a favor and this is the reward?