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Teaching Torture In The Homeland

By Elizabeth Hayes

04 September, 2015

Everybody knows. Cops are allowed to shoot you for looking at them funny, as long as you are black and/or devastatingly poor, but instead of outrage over murderous cops, the middle class trembles at the blowback they fear from the hoods and finds it outrageous if protesters, however calmly, invade their shopping pleasures with signs and—gasp—force this problemupon their attention. Protesting against injustice has become unacceptable because it’s all about law and order here in the Homeland, however much criminality has gone mainstream. Rick Parry thinks he can become president despite that felony indictment, and really, why not? The banks forge documents with impunity, and NPR reports it breezily. Obama decides who to drone every Tuesday, snickering at international law, because the war of terror is our sacredmission.Incarceration for proliferating victimless crimes has become a boon for the stock market—but why go on? You get the picture.

Well, it’s not really true that everybody knows. At the state colleges I’ve taught at in these last dozen years, most of the freshman English students don’t know much of anything, but are excited to be of voting age. Most admit that after reading a few paragraphs they get sleepy; some say they get nothing at all out of reading, nothing at all. They say that people have different learning styles so it’s really unfair of me to expect them to read 30 pages a week, particularly stuff that hasn’t been sparknoted. I try to help them with that reading problem: find a good time and place where you can concentrate, drink some coffee or get a script for amphetamines—but before you fall that desperately low, slap yourselfhardon the cheek. I demonstrate this for them, explaining that it really has to sting. I’m always trying to help.

I’m 57, and seem to recall a time when Amerikans had at least some sense of justice. I like to think that the problem is ignorance, so these past dozen years I’ve been working to help our young get a grip on some realities other than who is liking whom on Facebook, and it has been, for most of those years, a very rewarding experience—not monetarily, mind you, but certainly for all the cool people who have dropped into my classes, mostly people with some distance from the crushing boredom of sheltered extended Amerikan childhood and with some experiences of reality: the veterans who have seen the light, the ex-cons caught in the drug wars, the ones whose IT careers exited to India, the immigrants from far and wide, the survivors of homelessness in what I am now supposed to call the blighted neighborhoods, plus even a few teens from the suburbs who somehow managed to survive their schooling with some of their native intelligence intact. They were enormously helpful co-teachers, supporting me in my contention that the world is not what it looks like from yourtypical suburban Amerikan teenager’s high school graduation ceremony, and thereby improving the insights of our citizenry.

I think it was about 2006 that I decided that it was altogether stupid to make my students buy textbooks containing readings available free on the Internet when I could just give them the links, and that worked pretty well for a while. I also collected current articles from various online news sources regarding issues I thought the students should be aware, and one thing I really wanted them to know about was torture.

Learning about torture from such “safe” media outlets as PBS, The Nation, and The New Yorker had some strange effects on people’s writing. Some who had been writing very coherent, grammatically correct essays and journals totally lost it: they were so rattled by finding out what the military was up to that they could not manage a single correct sentence. Some, in their journals, told me about their traumatic experiences trying to relay this information to friends, who told them that Muslims get what they deserve, and how could they be so unpatriotic? Some whose essays had looked like they had been dashed off in 20 minutes under the influence of tequila started writing with precision and focus. A young man from Afghanistan hugged me, so grateful and surprised to find an Anglo-Amerikanwho saw things from his point of view. “Yeah, what about those terror alerts!” he said, delighted to not be feared.

Mostly the classes held up pretty well under this unexpected onslaught of reality. A lot is being written about the cluelessness of our young, but I handled it this way: I told them that their schooling has been boring and stressful, all day at school being told what to do, and then a part-time job by the time you’re 15 or 16, plus homework; and with all that “learning,” they can’t remember how to do long division or where to place a comma. All that knowledge crammed into their heads keeps leaking out their ears: the “cram, test, forget, repeat” cycle accrues little knowledge, let alone wisdom, but merely creds. Most of my students appreciated me for clueing them in.As a rule, young people actually appreciate being told the truth and being treated like adults rather than unruly wards, and will forget about their smartphones and begin to focus if given something compelling to think about.

Eventually I decided to have “torture debates” and found out some things that I really don’t want to know, but I know them now and you should too.
Eight years ago, one class reacted very badly to the torture debate I'd assigned. I had divided the class randomly into groups of four. The groups had to research the arguments for and against the use of torture. Half the groups had to argue pro, half con, and I picked randomly which side each group was on. They had to give little presentations. This venture was doomed from the start because this really hot chick—long blonde hair, big blue eyes, lots of cleavage and stiletto-heeled boots—proclaimed that her boyfriend said it was fun to kill Iraqis, and none of those boys with their tongues hanging out were going to disagree. I barely stopped myself from saying, “Do you actually sleep with that guy?” She had seemed sensible enough!There was a fundamentalist Christian chick in there too, also lots of cleavage and a burning desire to write an essay about how she should be able to pack a gun, and a lot of representative fascist white guys who no doubt spent most of their time watching gonzo porn while doing their Business 101 homework.

The worst of those boys were all together in a group, and were charged with arguing against torture. Their presentation: they said a few feeble things in a sing-song voice (eg “so and so says it makes people lie”) and then they sat there glaring at me in silence, their pumped up arms folded. Quite the performance!
Another anti-torture group did a bit better. They said torture was unfair because only twelve percent of Muslims are terrorists. I stopped them and asked where they got that figure. The girl who had said it looked at the guy who hoped to work for the NSA, and after a five-second pause he said, “I made it up.” I said, “Oh, now I see why we have to spend so much money defending the Homeland and keeping those torture chambers busy. Did you look up how many Muslims there are in the world? Do the math!” The girl continued, constantly repeating the phrase “what they did to us on 911.” I kept interrupting her, asking “Who are they?” However, this did not stop her from saying it over and over again. I suppose that was unprofessional of me.

How do you even grade crap like that? The unofficial yet iron rule is that you are not allowed to flunk more than a few.

Usually the torture debates had gone somewhat better. For instance, in one class this guy, who was supposed to be arguing pro-torture, showed the scene in Braveheart where William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, gets eviscerated in a frenzied crowd. When I asked him how that scene could possibly give credence to torture, he said, “I just thought it was cool.” I was heartened by the fact that most of the students thought he was an out-to-lunch asshole.

OK, so sometimes things can get out of hand if the teacher decides to rock the boat a bit and get people to actually think about things like the realities of our military “adventures,” but one can never expect perfection, and of the 100 or so classes I taught from 2005 to 2015, only two went into meltdown, so we’re talking a very high success, or at least non-disaster, rate, and nobody died. Christian fundamentalist girl did not take a pink gun out of her purse and shoot me, praise the Lord. And even if that class edged into surrealism, some of the students, even there, heard the message that the only purpose of torture is torture, that our glorious military and the CIA are lying when they say their most despicable, depraved, sadistic, disgusting acts are unfortunately necessary to keep us all safe. No, those in charge are at the very least hopelessly deluded, and much more likely getting off on the pleasures of extreme sadism, just like the gonzo porn devotees who glared their hostility at me. That class contained one veteran, who at the end of the last day came up to me and said, “I just want you to know I have no problem with anything you said. We from the military know the public has been told a simple story.” I only wish she would have helped me out a little. Most veterans do.

Nonetheless, I gave up on the torture debates after that disastrous class. Sometimes my standards are too high, and I was feeling anarctic breeze invading this great nation.

As above, so below.These past few years, things have changed in how the administrations handle freshman English. When I began teaching, the attitude was that the teachers could be trusted to conduct classes as they saw fit. This is increasingly less true, and at the other place I’d been teaching, I lost the ability to choose my readings; the head of the enterprise compiled a customized textbook, and a set of writing prompts all instructors must use. I was no longer to implement my curriculum, but his, and there’s nothing about torture or anything like that in his textbook. To read it, you would have no reason to suspect that our nation is engaged in any kind of global battlefield, although it purports to be a collection of the crucial issues facing Amerikans.

Two years ago, at the college where that girl told about the joys of murder, I was nominated for the "The Teacher Who Changed My Life" award, which had just opened up to adjuncts, and theadministration immediately shut me down: the classes I was assigned magically folded two semesters in a row, although they never had before. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I wonder what those students said.

To demonstrate the change in administrative thinking, some of those angry boys in the really disastrous torture debates ran to the dean to complain and gave me very bad evaluations—I am not teaching an English class, they said, by which they meant I was not lecturing on comma splices for the 50th time and had the audacity to tell them that if they finally really want to know, they can look it up or even go to the writing center--but this was some years ago, before the administrators realized they must be very careful(I will not be so forthright as to say cowardly) to have a career, and so I did not lose my job there at the time. I explained to my boss then what had happened, and he laughed and said “Holy crap!” And all was fine.

Now the common explanation given for the change in administrative attitudes concerning academic freedom is that they are besieged with students charging bias and insensitivity to their feelings, but I’m not buying it altogether. Sure, there is some of that, but from what I’ve gleaned, it seems that there is a chain of command, which my one boss, a veteran, explained to me pretty much thus: I am a private, answerable to him, who is answerable to the dean, who is answerable to the provost. I might add, following his logic, that the provost is answerable to the university president; and the state issues orders, and is ultimately answerable to the Department of Education, which is answerable to…(do you need a multiple choice exam?)

Although control has tightened, some fuzziness remains. The state, for instance, told the community college I worked atthat freshman English must teach less literature. That was a few years ago. When I asked my boss how much less, she said she did not know. My other boss, the veteran, told me that there are things you cannot say in a class, but refused to elaborate when I asked him to. Something smells putrid in all of this, like just about everything in what Joe Bageant refers to as the “zombie foodcourt”—this great nation, that is. The rules are unwritten and unspoken, and you will be judged by whether or not you know what they are.

The next time, a few years later,a student told me it’s all good fun to kill Iraqis illustrates what I mean. This was at a state university where the student body is quite diverse and often comes from outside the city’s greater area, unlike the community college where the first disaster occurred, which tends to draw students from a largely white, right-wing district. Thus teaching at the university presented somewhat different challenges. Students from some of the worst inner city schools in the nation end up there and have to compete with the suburbanites. Unfortunately, this can make the children of the ghettos so hostile to what white people demand theylearn that I am unable to help them, and this was definitely the case in this class. Without irony, I can’t say I blame them.
Two young black chicks sat in the back texting, and when I asked one of them (let’s call her G) to please try to pay attention and put that phone away, she gave me what for: “I don’t care about anything you have to say!” she shouted. “I want to get an education degree so I can move myself and my daughter out to some rich suburb, and all Iwant to know from you is how to use commas.” One of the white suburban boys said, “Really, commas? In college?” to which she replied, “Nobody’s taught me commas since third grade, and how am I supposed to remember what I learned in third grade?” I suggested she take advantage of the writing center tutors for that, and she said “I don’t have time for that bullshit.”

Good points, don’t you think? She had a daughter and a full load of classes, and most of those people in the writing center lack much training in grammar and usage, and would have likely told her to put a comma wherever she heard a pause anyway—I’ve heard that advice more times than I care to think. By the way, my students tell me they believe their high school teachers actually read the first paper of the year and then just apply that grade to everything else they write. It’s possible!

The identity politics in this class were rather complex. Add to the above-mentioned issues the fact that there were two older students in this class. One was a 30-something black woman from Jamaica who was retaking English 101 because she got a C in it the first time, and even though she went to the dean to tell him that teacher was biased—even though she took other students with her who agreed with her—he would not change her grade. She neededAs so she could become a psychiatrist (heaven help us). Let’s call her X. The other one was a white man, also thirty-ish, who had gone to art school but had never graduated, because who needs a degree to be an artist? He’d ended up teaching at a Montessori kindergarten but needed a degree to get full-time work there, and wanted to set up a Montessori school for poor children. He felt that getting to our children as early as possible is crucial. His daughter had been able to go to the Montessori kindergarten he was working in, but he’d had to put her in public school for first grade, and she came back from the first day and asked him why those children act that way. Let’s call him Y.

Being 35, a senior, and charismatic to most people’s minds, X had apparently assumed she would dominate the class, and she hated Y with a passion from day one because he disagreed with her about the US having the best medical care in the world, and even more so because his comments always showed a thorough comprehension of the readings and an understanding of how their messages connected up with related ideas in his vast leisure reading, so he was fun to talk with. X’s comments were also prolific but always started with “that reminds me of something I heard on Oprah,” and also always revealed that she had not read the assigned texts.

One day I’d just shown the class Adam Curtis’s “Oh Dearism” and was engaging in discussion. One young woman, whom I will refer to as H, said, “Why care about starving children in Africa when Jesus is coming back? Everybody better get back to church.”

That comment did not get a response from me. Another student mentioned a Rolling Stone article about US soldiers taking trophies from the people they had murdered. That’s when H said, “I come from a good Christian military family, and my uncles told me it was fun to kill Iraqis and throw them in the river.” Y asked dryly, “Doesn’t doing that conflict with their religion?”At that point, a veteran had a PTSD attack and started crying.

Just a tad out of control?The story Is not even nearly finished. All I said, as calmly as possible, was that some people start to enjoy killing when they go to war—General Petraeus said so himself—and tried to move the discussion forward to the assigned text, “America the Ignorant” by Laura Miller. Perhaps I went into a fugue state, as I cannot remember how that went, but the second the clock ticked past class period time, H jumped out of her seat and attacked Y, sticking her finger in his shocked face and screaming “Don’t you dare criticize my religion!” X and this sweet boy of the ghetto, who actually is going to medical school currently, had to pull her off of him, and she rushed out of there and could be heard screaming all the way down the hall.

(By the way, if you have children, live in Amerika, and plan to encourage your kids to take out loans to go to college, consider this advice: instead, encourage them to drop out of high school at age 16 and teach themselves, and if they ever need to get a corporate job, just lie about having the appropriate degree. I have known people who have been very successful using that approach—and even if they are found out, corporations adore a good liar. But I digress.)
The next morning at eight a.m. I got a call from my boss at that university, yelling at me. Some students, the names of whom he could not disclose, had gone to his office to complain that I was biased toward Y and had been rude to H, getting into her business outside of class time. It took me about 20 minutes to get him to stop screaming accusations, and 40 minutes more to convince him that maybe my version was half right.

Absurdities followed. He kept calling me at home to discuss my incapacity to handle classroom discipline. One of the girls in the class, a heartbreakingly earnest, intelligent girl, told me that X was passing out nail polish to all the females and spreading the rumor that I was having an affair with Y, who incidentally was 20-something years my junior and happily married. X asked me about my grade once out in the hall and I said that her participation grade was pulling her down, and she reacting by screaming “you hate me; you’ve always hated me,” causing quite the ruckus and disturbing everyone’s smartphone concentrations. I allowed her to rewrite all her papers but she would have none of my advice. She, as well as G and H, refused to show up at my writing tutorials. Finally I suggested to my boss that Y and I come talk to him about the class, and he said there was a rule that I could not talk to him with a student present; nonetheless, the next week he called me to say I must come in to talk to him and X. The rules, as usual, were whatever he said they were at any given moment.

One day in class I made this announcement to the class: “It is a very good idea to talk to my boss if I am giving you trouble, and it is also permissible to tell him good things about me too.”The student who is going to medical school, whom the ghetto schools had given up on, asked the name of my boss and put my answer in his smartphone. He knew how to use that device wisely. I found out later that he had gathered some students and had gone to my boss to defend me and explain the situation.

I am a kind person, at least in my estimation, so when it came time to compute final grades, I gave X full credit for participation (after all, she had participated A LOT), ignored the fact that she had not written her weekly journals, and dropped out the C- essay, and with a few more manipulations got her up to a B+. I wanted her off everyone’s back, but she was not satisfied, not at all. She went to my boss to complain, and he called me in and said I must help him with her. I said I did not have to help him (if you are an adjunct, the rule is that beyond crap pay, no job security, and no respect, you must also carry water for your boss).

OK, enough. There’s much more to just these two anecdotes of teaching in the Homeland, but given what information I’ve offered, you may be able to understand why I have been booted out of that university as well, and maybe you can even understand why I am considering starting a papermill, writing freshmen English papers for the bucks from the rich kids. After all, who is really going to care if they can think beyond their obscene, fanatical desires?Maybe I could use their money to facilitate that Montessori school Y wants to build.

I have two final things to say: first, I have little sympathy or respect for people who play along to get tenure—to be honest, absolutely none. Our country is in, and is, a grave danger, and nothing can be done about it if the schools continue to churn out the sorts of Amerikans that cannot see beyond the rank stupidity of the media show and their own pretentious consumer desires. A truly educated public trumps unions,particularly if the tenure system rewards the compliant and turns its back on those who don’t make it because they refuse to fake it.

The second one should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. We need to find a way to teach our children, and each other, because the corporatocracy has taken over the state schools from kindergarten on, and all too few are strong enough to pass through without being deformed into their oh-so-useful cogs.

Elizabeth Hayes is a former adjunct and currently unemployed. She is currently working on a novel. She may be reached at [email protected]


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