Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part IV: Play…Where It All Breaks Down

I think this will be my last post under this heading, because a) I am finding that the structure I have created here – the sense that I need to finish what I’ve started before I can move on – is slowing down my posting, and b) increasingly, this entire blog is pretty much on how I understand my pedagogy as unschooling, so the bracketing of these posts feels unneccesary.

That said, I do want to address this theme here, because it’s significant. I think that I told the story, in an earlier post, of students looking at me as if I had just landed from another planet when I assumed that puzzles were fun. This happens to me in almost every class; I say, by way of reassurance and encouragement, “You’re just playing! Let yourself play!” and they mutter and scowl and it is quite clear that I am out of touch.

So I began asking my students, in office hours and on walks across campus, what they do for fun. This is by no means a representative sample, of course, and I make no claims whatsoever to generalizability. But, as far as stories go, these are instructive and, again, heartbreaking.

There was the conversation that went like this:

Me: What do you do for fun?
Him: Fun?
Me: Yes, fun. What do you do in your spare time?
Him: I dunno. I guess I sit.
Me: You….sit??
Him: Yeah. Sometimes I sit.
Me: Okay. What else?
(He thinks, apparently in earnest, for a few minutes.)
Him: I really just go to work, I do my schoolwork, I go to bed and then I go to school. And then I do it again. But sometimes I will just sit.
Me: What about on weekends?
Him: I work on weekends.
Me: What about at night?
Him: I go to sleep after I do my schoolwork.
Me: TV?
Him: No, I don’t have one.
Me: Video games?
Him: I don’t like them.
Me: Do you read?
Him: I like to, but I really only read what I need to for school.

I’m not making this up. Then there was the woman who was struggling to pass my class. She came to me because she did not know what she wanted to do for her final paper.

Me: Okay, well, what are you interested in?
Her: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, what interests you?
Her: Like about the class?
Me: Well, ideally, but really anything…what are your interests?
Her: I don’t really understand.
Me: What do you *like* to think about?
Her: Um…I don’t really like to think.
Me: But you think all the time! What are you thinking about when no one’s telling you what to think about?

She is quiet. Then she says, avoiding my eyes,

“No, I don’t really think.”

Me: Okay. What do you do, then? What do you do in your spare time?
Her: I don’t have spare time. I work and go to school. And I run.
Me: You run?
Her: Yes.
Me: You like to run?
Her: Yes.
Me: What do you think about when you run? I mean, what’s on your mind?
Her: Nothing. I listen to music.
Me: Okay, but when you’re listening to music, your mind is still doing things. What’s running through your head?
Her: Just the music. Maybe the lyrics?

This went on for another ten minutes. I’ll spare you the details. But I will share one more, with a student who was struggling to understand the reading.

Me: What do you normally do when you don’t understand what you’re reading? I mean, if you’re reading something you enjoy, but you don’t understand it…what do you do?
Her: I don’t read if it’s not for school.
Me (seeing where this was headed): Okay, but when you weren’t so busy – when you were younger, what did you do?
Her: I never read.
Me: I see. You don’t like to read? Did you read anything in high school you liked, even a little?
Her: I never read in high school. I mean, we just had, like, little bits from books in our textbook. We didn’t have books.
Me: Do you remember a book from your childhood?
Her: This book for this class is the first book I’ve ever read, like cover to cover.

The point is not whether these horrifying stories are actually true. The point is that, at my institution – a place, like many across the country, where students go to school because they think they have to, exactly the way they go to work and, some of them, exactly the way they feed and bathe their kids – the narrative they tell is that all of it – school, life, every moment of every day, is gruntwork. I have dozens of stories just like these. This is the story they tell of themselves – of their lives, of their identities, of their practices.

I’m not interested in anything.
I have no time for fun.
I don’t think about anything.
I don’t like to think.
I don’t have any hobbies.
I’ve never read anything before.

I presume that at least some of these students browse the internet, watch movies on their phones or ipads, hang out with their friends, have sex and/or engage in recreational drug and alcohol use. (And obviously, the runner has thoughts.) But these are the stories they tell me. To their professor. One might think that they want their professor to see them as dynamic, multi-faceted human beings. Instead, they appear to want me to see them as overworked, exhausted…utterly depleted, living lives of ascetic drudgery.

And here I am, trying to follow their “interests.” Trying to get people to “play” when they’re telling me they don’t want, like, or have time to play.

I don’t believe that real learning – intellectual, cognitive, conceptual, experiential growth – can happen without playing. I’m unconvinced that it’s really possible. Memorization, sure. Retention, maybe. But that’s not learning. So the question, for me, becomes: does “play” have to be fun for them? Does it have to be pleasurable? Do they have to experience it as leisure?

Because at any given moment in my classrooms, students are “playing.” Some of them are laughing and moving and clearly enjoying themselves. Others are not.

If you sit in a chair and phlegmatically stick Legos together, halfheartedly hoping something comes out of it by the time you get to leave and go somewhere else, and hating every minute of it, are you playing with the Legos?

Sometimes I am trying to force my students to play with Legos, simply because they won’t tell me what they want to play.

They won’t tell me, many of them, because they really don’t know. Sometimes, I guess, I need to go Montessori rather than unschooling – surround them with stuff (going the opposite way, of course, of Maria Montessori’s calling everything “play” instead of “work,” since I’m dealing with schooled adults).

I’m often tempted to have my next class write their own syllabus. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Maybe they don’t need to read anything. Maybe they don’t need to write anything. What is it that they want to do that will help them learn?

But for those who don’t actually want to “learn,” then no amount of ownership or play or autonomy will help. For those students, I have to find a way to make the classroom a different kind of space, or I have to just let them go without learning. They fail my classes. They find a professor who will help them memorize some stuff….maybe they’ll even retain some of those facts for years to come. And maybe that makes them feel “smarter,” more successful, better equipped to be a citizen in this world.

But I maintain that they’re not any “smarter.” These indicators of educational success are deeply, grossly, offensively problematic. They’ve spent their money and their time, both of which are at a serious premium for students at my school, and they’ve got nothing of value to show for it.

This is the tragedy here: we take the worst advantage of the least privileged students. It is precisely those who think that education is about a degree for a job, those whose alternatives would be low-wage jobs at best, who need to learn to play, to be creative, to think imaginatively, to free their intellects and trust themselves. It is, exactly and always, the students who don’t know better whom we are supposed to be teaching better than this. Otherwise, the “democratization” of education is a joke.

In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote, “…in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of ‘life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence” (319).

It’s nearly six decades later.  We need to transcend, people. Trans-fucking-cend.


Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part II: Deschooling in the Classroom

Given that unschooling is really about following the child’s interests, the child’s rhythms, the child’s schedule and letting learning happen in a natural, play-based way, calling what I do in my courses “unschooling” is admittedly a bit problematic. And it is not what I set out to do in my teaching, at least not on a conscious level. What happened between the day I began this blog and the day I returned to it nearly two years later was that I realized that my pedagogy, as a professor, is really about trying to unschool in college. It took me far too long to realize that what I was trying to do in school was actually consistent with my unschooling philosophy. Impossible as it might be, I believe in the idea of higher education (a topic for another post!) and I am, doggedly, trying to make it happen.

I’ve spent the last week or so thinking in detail about the specifics of my teaching – my syllabi, my assignments, class discussions, my grading structure – and the ways that they have changed over the past ten years (since Monkey was born and unschooling in our house commenced). I’ve been trying to answer the question I posed in my last post: where do I get off calling what I do in the classroom “unschooling?” Here’s what I’ve got so far.

In the first place, to some extent, there is “deschooling” happening in my classes. In fact, I’d argue that 75% of most of my classes are more deschooling than unschooling, and it is only in courses full of students who have had me before that unschooling happens.

Deschooling, in a nutshell, is a transitional period for former school kids, during which parents either help, or simply provide the necessary space for, their kids to “heal” from the structure and authoritarianism and emphasis on conformity of school. For some (many?) kids, this can look a lot like video games all day long for a few days (weeks?), and for others this looks like a lot of physical activity or sleeping or playing with their toys. Like the rest of unschooling, everyone does it differently, but the idea is to help kids break out of and try to “unlearn” the values learned in school. In most cases, the children are fairly young, and the lessons to be unlearned are primarily emotional and psychological.

Since I am being paid to “teach” my students my subject matter, and since they are paying for this education, my efforts to help them “unlearn” what they have learned up until my course does not leave room for them to heal and play video games instead of “working.” My students are adults – and I am not their parent – and thus my deschooling does not is not focused on their emotional, psychological and social well-being. But still I need them to unlearn the lessons about how learning happens. My deschooling is intended, often jarringly, to break them away from the content-based, authority-based, mindless distillation of “information” into unhelpful sound bytes that appears to me to be the major contribution of 21st century schooling in the U.S. This underlies my focus on “process” learning instead of “content” learning. I am, I now think, attempting to deschool by shifting them away (coercively, of course, so there’s where my unschooler membership card may be confiscated) from learning “stuff” into learning how to learn.

The nuts and bolts of my deschooling are:

1. No textbooks. Ever. Textbooks are the enemy of thought. Textbooks stand for everything that I am fighting so very hard to defeat. The entire point of a textbook, however “good” it is, is that someone else has combed through the complex and complicated material, distilled it down to what someone else thinks is most important, and presented it in a clear and easy-to-understand format so that the important content can be readily accessed, remembered and regurgitated. This is a travesty. Learning should not be clear and easy (another post to come on that soon too). Education is not – or should not be – tantamount to memorizing the outcomes of other people’s intellectual processes. It should be the experience, culmination and outcome of your own intellectual process.

2. No PowerPoints. Also ever. For all of the reasons textbooks are anti-intellectual, the PowerPoint craze is worse. (Check out others’ arguments about this, here and here and here.) While I am aware that it is possible for the technology to be used differently, and I would be happy to consider examples, the overwhelmingly common practice – and explicit goal, for Pete’s sake – is, as with textbooks, to distill and reduce nuance, to uncomplicate the complicated, to feed students “information” as if that is what is relevant – as if we are reporting the facts of the world to them. And students are asked to create PowerPoints also – to scan their textbooks for the bold-typed words and their articles for the subject headings, insert them onto screens, make everything look pretty, and call that thinking. On my campus, increasingly, the would-be wonderful programs to help facilitate student research and scholarship are requiring PowerPoint presentations. I now refuse to work with these programs, and I am glad to explain my reasons to anyone who will listen. PowerPoints are, at least in practice, quite blatantly about conformity and an authoritarian model of education and intellectual reductionism.

3. I strongly discourage – and, in classes full of particularly strongly “schooled” students (for example, those with a high number of education majors – again, a post for another time!), I have been known to outright forbid – their use. Highlighters, at least the way my students use them, reinforce the exact opposite of my pedagogical goal. It facilitates scanning for the most pertinent “information.” Highlighting avoids generating thoughts oneself (unlike, for example, jotting notes in the margin), instead contenting oneself with the words already written on the page, as they are. Finally, it virtually guarantees that every re-read will result in the same conclusions, since the point of highlighting is to direct the reader’s attention back to the same passages each and every time. I do not want my students to keep coming back to the same reading. I want them to find different interpretations, notice different words, find new frames, every time they re-read. Highlighting ensures that reading will never be an adventure. It is a plodding, banal, deductive exercise. It functions, with along textbooks and PowerPoints, to emphasize the retention of content rather than the engagement in a creative or generative process.  (So do tests; I think it probably goes without saying, but I don’t use exams either.)

4. I don’t have an attendance policy. If students don’t want to be there, I don’t want them there. Students who don’t want to be in class drag down the collective energy of the group, negatively impact the discussion and drain my spirit. Learning should be voluntary. The students at my institution don’t appear to think so; they have been beaten down by the system thus far, and they resent having to be in my classroom in order to get a job. I try to excite and inspire – but at the end of the day, if my efforts have failed and they just don’t want to be there, I really just don’t want them there. I can’t un-register them – but I *can* strive to create dynamics and processes that make my classes welcoming to people who want to engage, and unwelcoming to people who do not. So I do nothing for the students who want (or need) to play video games (metaphorically) all semester; they will have to stay home and fail the course. But for those whose deschooling can involve doing things in a much more self-directed and open way, I do what I can to provide them a space in which they can play and learn and enjoy the process.

5. Grading. Sigh. The bane of my professional existence.

During my junior year of high school, I was accepted into Hampshire College. They used narrative evaluations of student success in lieu of grades. Like any well-schooled student, I was skeptical that this could result in anything positive. When I visited the campus, I was floored by what these students did. On the tour, I walked across an elevated tunnel of sorts, connecting one building to another. The tour guide told me that the tunnel design had been someone’s senior thesis. I was stunned by the scope and quality of art projects, published literature, theater productions, machines used on campus – all of them had been senior projects. Not only had students produced these ideas, but the campus clearly supported student works. Narrative evaluations were obviously not in the way of liberal arts education at Hampshire College.

I did not choose to attend Hampshire. Partly, I now suspect, I was intimidated by the level of accomplishment of the students. At the time, of course, I was unconcerned about the direction of liberal arts education – about the demise of intellectualism. I attended another artsy liberal-arts school, much less intense and therefore much more comfortable for a student who had succeeded in the conventional grading system.

I have yet to face a semester’s grading work without fervently wishing we had a system like Hampshire College did then. (I don’t know whether they do now; I keep meaning to check on that…) I have yet to calculate a grade without being angrily aware of its inadequacy, its uselessness, its limitations.

The very worst part of it – the part that makes all of it so tragic – is how much grades mean to my students. They have so much riding on them. The emphasis on these grades – which many, many professors will admit to you, if only after a scotch or two or three, are all but utterly meaningless – is built into their financial aid, their participation in sports, their membership in Honors societies, their ability to land internships and to study abroad. On practical and significant ways, their grades matter.
The problem is that on ideological and pedagogical ways, at least for process-based learning, their grades are, in a word, silly. Nonsense. Jibber-jabber. Not. The. Point.

But their grade anxiety is directly, squarely, forcefully, angrily, obstinately in the way of their learning.

I cannot get rid of grades and still keep my job, but I can make them mean something else. I can shift their representation to that of having read closely and thought thoughts and nurtured and developed those thoughts. After years of tweaking and experimenting, I am close, I think, in most of my classes, to a grading system that values what I value, and devalues what I want them to unlearn. It varies by course, but in general, I assure my students that those who engage in the process – who read closely, who think about the material and try to take it in other, new directions, and who talk and write about the material and these new directions – will do well. Students who do not do these things will not. Grading the process is difficult, but if I can get them fully engaged in this process, their product (term project) is immeasurably stronger – and then their grades mean as close to something as they can.

After some thought this week, I see these aspects of my teaching as my efforts to deschool in the classroom – to help them to move away from a system of “education” that prioritizes information-collecting, rubrics, memorization of “facts,” and a conformist trust in the “authority” on the page rather than one’s own thoughts.

Most of what I now see as deschooling is really about what I avoid in the classroom: the aspects of school that I explicitly reject, and push (if not force) my students to reject. The next post in this series – Part III – will explore what I actually *do* in my courses – the part that I am considering at least something akin to actual unschooling in the classroom. Thanks for staying tuned!

Unschooling at Home and at Work: Part I

Here’s how Monkey’s days go (I haven’t yet told her about the pseudonym):

She wakes up, too early for our tastes. Then she does pretty much whatever she wants until one of us gets up. Usually, that’s some combination of reading, playing, drawing/crafting, writing stories, watching television and playing video games. (We used to control her screen time, but we’ve moved away from that so that she could self-regulate, and she’s doing well with it.)

Someone makes breakfast – sometimes her. After breakfast, if no outings are on the docket, she does more of whatever she wants. Generally that includes playing games with whichever parent is home, playing with the dog in the yard, practicing the violin [okay, there are usually “reminders” (read:nagging) over that one], making various messes with chemistry sets (read: anything we keep in the kitchen), climbing all over the house, creating obstacle courses for her to jump over, recording herself making loud, crazy sounds into a digital recorder, playing make-believe of all kinds, covering herself in body paint, and generally causing more mayhem than one would believe one child could cause.

Once or twice a week, we get together with other unschooler friends for “free school” (several hours spent in a local space with space to run around, a stage and a bunch of tables and chairs) or outdoor activities. In between, she has friends come to our house or she goes to theirs, as often as we all can swing it. Once a month, she has her unschool book club, at which a handful of kids ages 9-13 talk about the book they decided to read at the last meeting.

She plays organized soccer and takes violin lessons. We don’t “make” her do either (though we do, as admitted, nag her to practice the violin).

The term “unschoolers” covers a wide range of folks, many of whom believe different things and do things differently.  Here’s an overview that fits with my perspective on it.  We are unschoolers because we reject compulsory education.  We reject the emphasis on conformity.  We believe that children learn best when they have the space to discover, the freedom to choose and the room to do nothing.  We believe that children learn best through playing.

We are not “radical unschoolers,” at least according to my definition of the contested term.  (By this definition and this one, we are, mostly.  But my sense of the term is from over a decade ago, and it still makes the most sense to me.  Radical unschooling, to me, involves a commitment to avoid setting limits of any kind in any realm, at least partly so that the child learns to set them herself, and thus grows into a confident, happy, unbullied, competent citizen.

I am sympathetic to this.  In general, I am an anti-authoritarian kind of parent (um…unless I’m highly irritated…).  There is no “Because I said so,” or time-outs, or punishments or “rules,” at least per se. This, to me, is consistent with my attachment-parenting philosophy, which I view as distinct from my unschooling philosophy, though nicely complimentary.

But we have our realms.  We insist that Monkey brush her teeth, give us our own space at night (unfortunately, our insisting on this does not always garner the desired result, but we insist nonetheless), eat the meals we prepare, and knock on our bedroom door before entering.  I say things like “knock it off!” and “If you don’t stop making that noise  this room I’m going to swing you around by your nose,” and do a host of other stuff that some unschoolers would find unacceptably authoritarian in nature.  Sometimes we even insist that she clean her room.  Monkey does not like this (okay, that’s a pretty major understatement), and usually these are awful days.  But if she does not, then either a) this will lead to problems for all of us, on the practical level like us getting out of the house for an appointment or the dog getting sick because he ate a toy or me cutting my foot on something on her floor or her tracking red who-knows-what-the-hell-that-is all over the rest of the house…into the carpet, or b) we will have to clean it ourselves.  And both of those options suck for many reasons on many days, whereas her cleaning her room sucks only for two reasons (we’re being coercive, and everyone is miserable) on only one day.  So we do it.  (Although I suspect that lately Partner-Person has been covertly picking things up  in there when I’m not home.)

What we do not do, is tell her what she should read, what she should know, what she should think about, what she should or should not play.  When I identify as an unschooler, what I mean is that I leave my child alone to learn what, when, how and as she pleases.  I am passionately committed to this.  I  wholeheartedly agree with nearly every word John Holt has published, and I unschool in large part because this is not how school works.

Here’s the thing, though.  As it happens, this kid is wicked smart.  (I say this as a both parent and a professor.) Monkey is a voracious reader, with a college-level vocabulary.  She is a steel-trap kind of logician. Her curiosity is insatiable and she possesses a sort of intellectual (and verbal) relentlessness that brings to mind the love child of a badger and a pit bull.

And in my most honest moments, I do not know whether we could, or would, do what we do if she were not who she is.

Therein lies, as they say, the rub.  I am unschooling a person who is inclined to read, inclined to think critically, inclined to learn – about pretty much everything.  As much as I believe that all children would be more like this if they were unschooled, I know that doesn’t mean that they would all be like this.  I know that my kid’s passion for academics makes it a breeze for her academic-type parents to unschool.  Given who she is, it feels a little bit as if, as unschoolers, we’re somehow… cheating.

My students have taught me this.  As much as I try to integrate my unschooling philosophy into my professional pedagogy, I know that I want my students to develop particular skills and inclinations.  I want them to be readers and writers and critical thinkers.  I believe that unschooling is the way to get there, but I very much want them to get there.

And many, many of them are not there.  They tell me they have never read a book – and I believe them.  They call every nonfiction book that I assign a “novel.”  They write dialogue without quotation marks,  and they find 250 pages as daunting as – dare I say it? – we found War and Peace.  (Yes, which we read while trudging six miles through the snow, shoeless.)

So unschooling in my classroom is not about letting them “grow up” to be whomever they choose to be. In the first place, my actual job is education.  When I chose this career, I did so under the mistaken belief that I would be teaching people who wanted to learn what I would be teaching.  I assumed that they had already grown into what they wanted to be, and what they wanted to be now was college students.  In other words, I take for granted in my daughter a love of learning that I cannot take for granted in my students.

Therefore, and in the second place, my students do not have the freedom to not read, or to not write, or to not think.   When they walk into my classroom, they make the decision that they want to commit something to this process of learning, much like when Monkey decides that she wants to continue with violin lessons she decides to make a commitment.  She does not have to take violin lessons.  This is her idea.  But she either wants to study violin, or she does not want to study violin.  If she did not want to study violin, we would just buy her an old violin, add it to her box of musical instruments, and she could fiddle whenever she got a hankerin’.  If she chooses to study, she has to do some heavy lifting.   My students have chosen to study, and I am there to facilitate their practice.  The problem is, they do not agree that they have made this choice.  They feel coerced.

Where, then, do I get off calling what I am trying to do in my college courses “unschooling?”  Tune in next time for Part II.



I am a college professor and an unschooling parent.  Once upon a time, I thought these things were quite compatible.  Increasingly they seem to be at odds.  I am endeavoring to reconcile my pedagogical ideology with my actual job, and I’ve decided to write about it as I do.  Welcome.

Unschooling – at least the way my family does it – is largely based on the writings of John Holt.  After years as an educator, Holt concluded that children learn best by, essentially, not being instructed. His work has inspired a generation of unschoolers who “teach” our children by letting them play, traveling with them, providing them with access to things in which they are interested – by, in short, following their leads.  By and large, unschooled kids do what they want, and don’t do what they don’t want to do.  And by and large, unschooling parents work very, very hard (on multiple levels) to be able to do this.

For our family, this works beautifully.  For the other unschooling families with whom we spend our time, this appears to be working beautifully. The unschooled children we know are creative, open, confident, talented, kind human beings.  They know what it is to pursue a goal out of pure interest, to complete a task they devised themselves.  They know how to discern interest from boredom, and how to recognize and nurture their own passion when they feel it.  They know how to make connections across activities, ideas, thoughts, stories, paintings, music; things remind them of other things, and they know how to run with that.  Their worlds and their daily lives are not compartmentalized.  They know how to think.  They like to think, because they have learned that thinking means spending time and energy on interesting things.

Cut to my career.  I am an academic.  I research, I write and I teach.  I love teaching.  I have loved it since I began doing it, well over a decade ago.  I have always succeeded in fostering a lively environment, in which I focused much more on the process instead of the outcome.  Activities and assignments were difficult but quirky enough to appeal to most of the students, where their interests dictated the direction, pace, and often even the material of the course.  “Teaching,” though, has always meant “facilitating,” “inspiring,” “provoking.”  It has never meant “telling,” which is what my students increasingly seem to think it means.  In my early teaching days, I did not feel coercive.  I did not feel like I was pulling teeth.

Part of it is simply that I’m getting older (and my students are not).  The gap between us is widening.  They get my jokes less often and I have to ask them about pop culture references and new slang words more often.  I expected that part.

I did not expect their reaction when they grumbled about an assignment, and I naively said, “Really?  But it’s just like a puzzle!”

Almost in unison, at least fifteen of them raised their eyebrows and looked at me as if I were completely out of mind.

“Ah! You don’t see that it’s a puzzle…” I surmised.

“We see that it’s a puzzle.  Why would we want to do a puzzle?” one of them clarified.  The others nodded.

“Puzzles are fun!” I exclaimed.

They erupted in laughter.  Seriously, they thought it was a riot that I would say that puzzles were fun.  I was skeptical, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to hit upon puzzles that they in fact enjoyed.

I was unsuccessful.  Puzzles were not leisure.  They were tests in disguise.  They were sources of anxiety and tension, things that were used to sort the can-dos from the can’t-dos.  The point of all puzzles was to solve it correctly, and therefore, they could not be fun.

These are the children who were not “left behind.” They are adults now.  They have spent 12 years (or more) doing as they were told (or at least looking as if they were doing as they’re told).  What they were told to do, apparently, was pass tests by any means necessary, in subjects that meant little to them.  If they wrote papers, they did not see them as their creative products, but as another test.  Their papers were graded alongside rubrics; they either did what they needed to do, or they did not.  Many of them (have I mentioned, a heartbreaking number of them?) – are now completely uninvested in their own intellectual processes and products.  They resent me because they feel they “have” to be there, and I cannot understand why they are not excited to be there.  This, I absolutely did not expect.

My job, as I see it, is to help them to be excited to be there.  My job, as they see it, is to give them a good grade so that they can get out of this completely irrelevant class and get a job.

I teach sexy subjects, and I’m a charismatic, dynamic sort of speaker.  When I fail to ignite a spark class, I get radical.  I get desperate.  And I repeatedly make the same mistakes.  I ask them what books they want to read.  Most of them don’t care; reading is reading, they tell me.  “If you’re gonna make us read, it doesn’t matter what book.”

I give them the freedom to redesign the class; what do they like to do?  Would they prefer several shorter assignments, or longer ones?  Thirty sets of shoulders shrug.  I leave their paper topics open, so that they can write about what interests them, do something interesting with whatever they have gleaned from the material.  This drives them crazy.  Time after time, class after class, they glare at me and say the same thing:

“Just tell us what to do.”

Many – not all, but far, far too many – of my students are averse to intellectual freedom.  I did not expect them to resent me for empowering them in the classroom and in their own work.

Remember St. Elmo’s Fire (the movie, not the weather phenomenon)?  Mare Winningham worked in a social services office.  During one scene, a young mother (played by Kaaren Lee) brought her children to the office to pick up her welfare check.  Mare sat down with her and shared news about a new job opening that might be a good fit.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman muttered.

The always-well-intentioned Winningham tried again, pulling a piece of paper from a pile with another opportunity.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman said, a little louder.

Good ol’ Mare tried one last time.  When Kaaren Lee responded, the words were almost the same, but her tone captured a brilliant, poignant blend of exhaustion, desperation, hopelessness and rage.  Just gimme my damn check.

In 1985, of course, audience sympathies were with poor Mare, diligently trying to help a lazy, unmotivated welfare mother to a better situation.  But I heard in that line that the situation was simply insurmountable.  There was no way out, nothing was going to get any better, and why the hell couldn’t Mare Winningham see that and give her the money so she could go buy her fucking groceries?

I want so badly for my students to want to change their relationship to books, to writing, to thinking…to school.  Everything would be better for them if they did that.   They look like they simply don’t want to bother. But a handful of times each semester, Kaaren Lee’s voice echoes in my mind, and I hear that heartwrenching hopelessness… that aggressive and oppressive apathy.

Therein lies, for me, the tension between being an unschooler and being a professor in today’s world.  My pedagogy depends upon my students caring.  I am not an elementary school teacher or a secondary school teacher.  I would not want to teach in a setting that felt coercive to students.  I developed my expertise and my skills and my course syllabi out of the assumption that I would be teaching students who wanted to be there with me.  I believed that their presence in my classroom would be, at least a good deal of the time, an indicator of their interest.  I don’t know what to do with students who do not want to play with these topics and ideas, or travel through these readings or films, or create together, through talk or writing or art.

And so I am on a mission to figure out what to do in these apparently-increasingly-common situations, in which I am charged with “teaching” students who are there because they see no viable alternative.

Just gimme my damn degree.