As a newly-minted teenager, I was exposed to the horrific scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in which an endless line of faceless students is dumped into a meat grinder. Before this point, I doubt I had any clear notion of “school” as anything other than a friendly, uncomplicated attempt to help me out by giving me knowledge. In conjunction with this memetic assault, however, I was also in a new situation—a newcomer (and therefore outsider) in a small town in far western Kansas. School was now a mixture for me of both battleground and haven—a place where I still sought mothering or fathering from the teachers while also pitted against most of my classmates in bitter warfare with my self-esteeem and physical well-being under constant threat.
In this environment, I developed the twin modes of emotional knowing which inform my conflicted sense of the Academy even now—a self-protective intellectual elitism, placed confrontationally against my “peers” who are submerged (from this viewpoint) in a degraded and stupid popular culture which produces nothing but mental sausages, and a lingering idealization of the place of Teacher or Scholar, of knowledge and its pursuit. Of course, my particular psychic river is met by many other streams—my background as an “American” growing up in th 1970’s, as an “American” in general and a Southerner and Westerner culturally; as someone who grew up with a single working mother and whose grandparents on both sides were poor rural Scots-Irish (sharecroppers on one side and odd-jobsman on the other). Add to this the dimensions of having survived a very dangerous childhood (drug addicts, dangerous alcoholics, neglect, abuse, poverty, crime, health problems); being an apostate (one who has rejected the popular notions of theism, by reason and choice, in his adulthood); a political and social radical (who apparently falls most easily under the label of “anarcho-syndicalist”); someone who has seen severe depression and drug abuse up close and personal; worked in factories, restaurants, libraries, and high-tech communications environments; and last but not in any sense of the word least, a writer, artist, and musician.
This all must go into my approach to teaching, just as it colours everything I do or say, read or write. There is no escaping it, and it does not seem all that appropriate to even try—we are all situated no matter what level of “detachment” we think we have achieved. Awareness of one’s own processes and processing is a constant struggle from which we must rest at times or risk burnout, mental fatigue, and possibly even a lapse into apathy or nihilism. I believe that all of us can teach passionately, in the “contact zone” from our own dangerous perspective, while still maintaining a healthy respect for others and their views—so long as we have solidly at center the realization that no knowledge is total, and meaning is a constant transaction amongst ourselves—students and teachers—so long as a dialogue is in progress.