My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

Escape 29: Can psychology do it?

Escape 29: Can psychology do it?

My, my, this is a tough question for all of those people who would want science to provide prescriptions for future behaviour or for the amelioration of the human condition.  Can psychology do it?  Becker writes:

We can talk for a century about what causes human aggression; we can try to find the springs in animal instincts, or we can try to find them in bottled-up hatreds due to frustration or in some kind of miscarried experiences of early years, of poor child handling and training.  All these would be true, but still trivial because men kill out of joy, in the experience of expansive transcendence over evil. If men kill out of heroic joy, what direction do we program for improvements in human nature?  What are we going to improve if men work evil out of the impulse to righteousness and goodness?

if men are aggressive in order to expand life, if aggression in the service of life is man’s highest creative act?

Doesn’t look too promising does it?  Not only that, Becker reflects on the idea that crazy, twisted people don’t do anywhere near as much damage to life as idealistic leaders.  Leaders, no matter how screwed up they are,  are still for people an ‘expression of the widespread urge to heroic transcendence.’ (p. 156)

Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production.  This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind.  Still, there are no ‘twisted’ people whom we can hold responsible for this.

Well, I’m thinking there may be the odd ‘twisted’ bastard out there in the ranks of the world’s ‘leaders.’  I’m thinking Dick Cheney might qualify.  If nothing else he and people like him, including Stephen Harper, are prepared to sacrifice anything including the viability of the only home they have, the earth.  That’s twisted in my mind.  Freud admitted himself that ‘there is no dependable line between normal and abnormal in affairs of the human world.’ (p. 156) WFT.  So is there any hope for psychology, real psychology? I don’t really know.  Not sure exactly what hope would look like.  Becker was not convinced that the ‘psychical’ sciences could offer much in the way of advice to the human race.

Still, Becker notes, that Freud, no matter how cynical he got, always trusted psychoanalysis.  In the end he believed in it as anyone believes in their particular hero system. That’s probably true of a lot of psychologists.

Well, the simple answer to the question in the title of this blog is no.  How does psychology deal with problems of ‘cosmic heroism?’  So, now we come to the end of this Becker marathon.  Tomorrow, in my last post in this series, I see what Becker has to say again about The Science of Man.

Escape 25: Prisoners of Death

Escape 25: Prisoners of Death

In Chapter 9 of EFE called Social Theory: The Merger of Marx and Freud Becker tackles the question that he poses at the end of Chapter 8 about human nature.  He notes that we haven’t come yet to understand it, or really know about it so we flail around looking at aspects of human nature in disciplinary purity just as blind men might touch bits of an elephant’s body without ever recognizing it as an elephant.   This is a chapter full of insight but before I get to a fairly long quote that ends the first section of it, I want to summarize the essence of Becker’s thought in this short book but ‘tainted’ on occasion by my own take on things.

So, here we are, a sexually-reproducing mammalian species that through a series of evolutionary events develops enough cerebral cortex to come to be outraged by the fact that members of this species die.  Of course, people eons ago may have been ‘primitive’, but they weren’t stupid.  They knew that all things died.  Plants, animals, everything.  Bodies die: we, effectively, have bodies that make us prisoners of death. No escape is possible.  People generally ate dead things and they knew that they themselves died.  However, as I said earlier, they were outraged by this prospect.  Something had to be done about that.  Well, I have no first hand knowledge of this and the anthropological record is spotty, but I surmise that people’s dreams, somnolent musings, epilepsy or drug induced visions were the source of the solution to the problem of life and death.

Because life was such a constant struggle with the invisible forces which caused floods, fires, droughts, volcanoes, earthquakes and a host of other disasters, if a person were especially well respected, his or her dreams or visions might be taken very seriously by the group because any hint that an accommodation was possible with the said forces would be welcome indeed.  More so, if dead ancestors could be communicated with, well, what a bonus.  That killed two birds with one stone.  If we could communicate with dead ancestors because a respected member of the group reported that he or she did just that in a dream or vision, that meant that they were still ‘alive’ sort of.  It wasn’t much of a stretch then for people to think of themselves as body and spirit.  Yes the body dies and that’s too bad, but the spirit lives on into eternity. Problem is that like living people, ancestral spirits can be helpful or malevolent.  In both cases, the living had to deal with them.  So, eventually we came up with the idea that communication with the spirit world was essential for such a weak species.  It wasn’t even much of a leap to think that just about everything that happened in life was governed by invisible forces.  The big deal, of course, was to be able to barter with the invisible forces (gods) that could help or hinder living human beings in their determination to live.

So, we come to the invention of ritual, the ‘technique of manufacture’ of life.  Done exactly as prescribed in a vision or dream and life would ensue.  Fail to perform the ritual exactly as prescribes by the gods or the ancestors in a dream and disaster would ensue.  Things haven’t really changed much.  The Christian world works exactly in this way.

A difficulty with all of this is that, as Becker argues, groups of people eventually split up to form clans and moieties so that they could compete with each other in attempts to show clearly who was more in tune with the invisible world of gods and ancestors.  Becker doesn’t argue, but I think, that it is also entirely plausible that autonomous groups encountered other groups in their wanderings on this planet.  In these encounters, it would have been difficult not to notice that their ideas about how to connect with the invisible world might differ substantially from their own.  Then what?  Whose ideas were the true ones?  All of life was at stake.  No wonder people fought to the death and were willing to pile corpses upon corpses.  Killing became a surefire way of guaranteeing the truth of our own stories and to convince ourselves of our immortality.  So, eventually, the group and its ideas and rituals came to be seen as the repository of truth.  No other group need apply.  Enter scapegoating, war, holocausts and mass executions.

So, to end this already too long post, a quote from Becker:

Each society elevates and rewards leaders who are talented at giving the masses heroic victory, expiation for guilt, relief of personal conflicts. It doesn’t matter how these are achieved: magical religious ritual, magical booming stock markets, magical heroic fulfillment of five-year plans [as the Soviet Union had], or mana-charged military mega-machines – or all together.  What counts is to give the people the self-expansion in righteousness that they need. The men who have power can exercise it through many different kinds of social and economic structures, but a universal psychological hunger underpins them all; it is this that locks people and power figures together in a life and death contract.

Escape 24: So, where do we go from here?

Escape 24:  So, where do we go from here?

At the end of Chapter 8 Becker has a short section on transference.  Freud wrote a book on transference, a phenomenon he observed in clinical practice where a patient would transfer to his doctor feelings she once had towards her parents.  Patients were quick to abandon their egos to the new power figure in their lives.  Others, among them Adler, Rank, Jung and Fromm extended Freud’s observations.  It’s because of them, Becker argues that “today we can say that transference is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition.  Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe.” (p.127).  Transference is an incredibly powerful impulse.  How is it that “men were so sheeplike when they functioned in groups – how they abandoned their egos to the leader, identified with his powers just as they did once before when as dependent children they yielded to their parents.” (p.127)

Years ago I taught courses on studying skills on the Knowledge Network.  As part of a course called Advanced Study Skills I talked about self-esteem and the need for self-esteem.  Well it seems that one of my esteemed colleagues, an administrator at the college he was, took exception to the idea of self-esteem.  He actually wrote a paper called Self-Esteem: The Scourge of the Twentieth Century.  In simple terms his argument is that any self-love detracts from the love of God.  A Christian, (but he could have subscribed to any number of immortality-ideologies and come up with the same conclusion) he argues in his paper must invest his whole being in his love of God.  The only being deserving of esteem is God.  I think that this is a classic example of extreme transference.  Of course, his logic is impeccable if you buy into his basic premise, which is that the body, the ego, the self, are the carriers of death and the only way to eternal life is by a complete abandonment to God, the ultimate symbol of the other side of life, the spiritual side, the one that doesn’t die.

Becker turns to transference in the last two chapters of EFE.  He wrote a whole chapter on transference in The Denial of Death.  In EFE his consideration is:  where do we go from here?  How can science deal with the fact that people are so willingly dominated by leaders who promise them health, prosperity and immortality, and the defeat of death?

My daughter, an evolutionary biologist, has always impressed me with her dedication to science and what Veblen called the search for truth.  For her and scientists generally, science does nothing but create models of how the world works.  Obviously ‘the world’ here refers to the physical world, the world amenable to our senses.  In practice, our senses can be extended by telescopes, microscopes and a myriad of other technologies.  We can ‘see’ into cells, DNA, galaxies and universes and create models for how they ‘work’.  We can also ‘see’ into the behaviour or plants and animals.  We can create models of how ‘things’ interact with each other and are interdependent.

I think that social scientists can also create models for how the world works.  It gets more complicated when ‘looking at people (to use a visual metaphor) because we are people too and we are involved in our social worlds.  It’s difficult to get enough detachment from the social world to study it ‘objectively.’  Becker advocated the scientific approach, but for him science had to contribute to making the world a better place.  Many social scientists make the same assumption.  So where do we go from here?  Well, in the next chapter Becker takes on social theory, particularly Freud and Marx.  As scientists, he argues that we have to “conceive of the possibility of a nondestructive yet victorious social system.” (p.126)  He writes (and I end on this):

One of the reasons social scientists have been slow in getting around to such designs has been the lack of an adequate and agreed general theory of human nature…right  now it is important to direct the reader to the quest for an agreed upon general theory of human nature to exactly what cripples the autonomy of the individual.

Well, maybe.

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long.  I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age.  Say it ain’t so.  I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not.  One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.

So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’.  This post is about a related term, scapegoating.  Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat.  Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles.  Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.”  I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!

From the beginning, men have served the appetites of one another in the most varying ways, but these were always reducible to a single theme: the need for fuel for one’s own aggrandizement and immunity.  Men use one another to assure their personal victory over death…In one of the most logical formulas on the human condition Rank observed: ‘The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.  No wonder men are addicted to war…war is a ritual for the emergence of heroes.

What about heroes? This is where Becker introduces the concept of heroism as a major element in his whole thought.  Heroes are not like the rest of us.  Most of us would be willing to sacrifice just about anyone who stands in our way, friend or foe, because inevitably people offend us.  A wife or husband ‘cheats’, another driver cuts us off in traffic then gives us the finger.  As Becker notes, this is the price of our natural narcissism.  We would like to kill people, or at least maim them, almost every day, but our fear of death prevents us.  Heroes are different.  They take the bullet, they take on the bad guys, they put themselves in harms way instead of throwing others in the way.  So “war IS a ritual for the emergence of heroes.”

The logic of scapegoating, then, is based on animal narcissism and hidden fear. If luck, as Aristotle said, is when the arrow hits the fellow next to you, then scapegoating is pushing the fellow into its path – with special alacrity if he is a stranger to you. 

Freud was right; in the narcissism of earthly bodies, where each is imprisoned fatally in his own finite integument, everyone is alien to oneself and subject to the status of scapegoating for one’s own life.

 We kill others, literally or socially, in order to affirm our own life. Then killing others in mass rituals like war is spectacularly affirming.  To bring it closer to home and in a bit of a less dramatic fashion, consider the way we treat the homeless and the poor and how desperately they try to hide their condition.  We kill them socially; it’s almost better than killing them physically because we prolong their suffering and see their distress and immobility as it slowly unfolds before our very eyes.  That affirms our life.

As we watch the Sochi Olympic Games, the victory celebration is a way of

…experiencing the power of our lives and the visible decrease of the enemy: it is a sort of staging of the whole meaning of a war, the demonstration of the essence of it – which is why the public display, humiliation, and execution of prisoners is so important. ‘They are weak and die: we are strong and live.’

We are disgusted by what is happening in North Korea but we turn a blind eye to the humiliation and degradation prisoners experience in our own prisons every day.

The U.S. is always keen to keep the torches lit and the electric chair warmed up.  Guantanamo Bay is a celebration of American power.

 It is obvious that man kills to cleanse the earth of tainted ones, and that is what victory means and how it commemorates life and power: man is bloodthirsty to ward off the flow of his own blood.

Other things that we have found hard to understand have been hatreds and feuds between tribes and families, and continual butchery practiced for what seemed petty, prideful motives of personal honor and revenge. 

Nothing has changed much.  We all think that we are the chosen people and if we don’t try literally to exterminate those who don’t agree with us or who aren’t like us therefore we can’t possibly ‘like’, we ostracize them, marginalize them, ignore them.

Here I would quote a passage that Becker uses from Alan Harrington, but it’s too long and I’m too tired.  Suffice it to say, that that guy over there with the funny beard and strange looking clothes and hat, what if that guy is right in his beliefs.  Can he be my equal?  “All I know is if he’s right I’m wrong.” (p. 113)

In times of peace, without an external enemy, the fear that feeds war tends to find its outlet within the society, in the hatred between classes and races, in the everyday violence of crime, of automobile accidents, and even the self-violence of suicide.

 Enough for today, don’t you think?  Is anybody really reading this stuff anyway?