Monday, November 10, 2008

The Dance of Victimization and the Demand to Take Responsibility

I am someone perpetually fascinated by the labor of teaching--the psychological and emotional toll of teaching as well as the absolute joy and life affirmation that follows from a good class or a great student. Lately, in my new teaching post, I have been reflecting quite a bit on the "individual responsibility" attitudes that some colleagues have toward their students. What always fascinates me is that many of my ultra ultra left wingers take this attitude toward students and these are folks who may very well be sociologists. They find themselves exhausted by the endless labor of teaching--labor that is not unlike a long term relationship or raising children--and they decide that the students need to start stepping up to the plate and "take responsibility" for their learning.

Such faculty will often cite the "millennial kids" mantra and then argue that we need to stop coddling these students and begin to teach them to be "responsible" adults. Now look, I am a fan of taking responsiblity and for being accountable to others. But, where I differ from the groans of my colleagues is this view that "failure to take responsibility" is what at the root of our students' learning problems. No doubt this is true for many slacker types, but in my experience, the slacker types don't really complain when you give them bad grades. They get it. They don't have any interest to do better.

The students that complain a good deal about their grades are often neurotic and panicked. They probably haven't obtained to what William Perry calls the skill of "procedural knowledge." These students believe either that all knowledge is true or false facts that authorities teach us or that there is no truth. The latter are a real bitch to teach. The former, I believe, are the neurotic students that drain us and send many of my colleagues into the "they need to take individual responsibility" mantra.

So, what I started thinking about in relation to this dance between the burned out professor and the needy student is how it echoes another discourse in American culture: the "individual responsibility" discourse of cultural conservatives. What hit me like a train wreck was that those who decry that their students, or their partners, or their children, or their co-workers, or poor people, or drug addicts (you get the point, right?) aren't "taking responsibility" for their lives are most often people who feel "victmized."

That's right. The discourse of individual responsibility flows from the sense of victimization. And, it is the latter that interests me the most. The assumptions that victimized folks make about the world and relationships. I am interested in working those out and so I am very keen to hear what the rest of you think of my partial list:

  • All relationships depend on each person "holding her own"
  • Relationships should not involve a lopsided caring for others when others are sick, hurt, or in need of help
  • Human happiness is a right
  • My time and freedom to control my time is paramount
  • If individuals that I am in relationships with are making mistakes, bad choices, or sick and they do not seek help, then I can cut them out.
  • My sense of well being comes from relationships with individuals who never make mistakes, act badly, or demand too many of my emotional or financial resources
  • If I am feeling hurt or drained by another person who is in some way needy, I will be better off breaking off the relationship and surrounding myself with people who are more self sufficient

So, these are just what came off the top of my head. I am still interested in working this idea out, because if I am right, this means that the disintegration of families and communities are more likely the result of a hard line ideology of "individual responsibility" that emanates from conservative pundits (i.e. Dr. Laura), than "liberals." Moreover, if I am right, this means that the rhetoric of "individual responsiblity" flows from folks who continually feel victimized by others and thereby do not recognize their own resources for finding happiness despite the fact that relationships with others are fraught with inescapable tragedy.


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