“Will Rogers once remarked that ‘we are all ignorant, only on different subjects.’ To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying.”
Morson (2015) hits on a key point that I think much of tenured academia needs to remind themselves of: Our specialties and fancy degrees make us scholars in a very specific area, leaving us ignorant in many other areas. We may know much about Derrida, Dante, and Foucault, but we know nothing about plumbing or electrical work.
I am—quite frankly—embarrassed when my colleagues gaff at blue collar workers, farmers, and stay-at-home moms who are not college educated. These citizens are essential to our society and economy, and their wages often fund the salary of many academics. The fact of the matter is, when we “smart people” need something fixed, we call the “uneducated” people to help us out.
Following the 2016 presidential election, one of my students commented that the reason more rural areas of the country voted for Donald Trump is because mostly uneducated people live in rural areas. And the reason she thought this was because her political science professor explained this phenomenon to the class.
Such rhetoric is dangerous, especially when dealing with students who don’t understand the value of taking a Literature course or wrestling with poetry (Schmieder). Such rhetoric leads students to think narrowly, forgetting that voting is a right of all citizens (educated and uneducated). It encourages students to cast stereotypes, assuming that no educated individuals live in rural areas and only educated people live in urban areas. But what is perhaps most depressing here is that such rhetoric influences students to categorize people in a society in which we already deal with much discrimination.
If we want buy-in… If we want our students to even begin to understand the complexity of Literature, then when we stand in front of a classroom, we need to be people before we are professors. We need to show humanity and compassion before we flex our published muscles. We need to remember that—like our students—there is much we don’t know. To teach them effectively, as Morson highlights, we have to realize our audience and help them understand not only the value of what we do, but the value of what everyone else does, as well. We cannot expect students to recognize the value of anything, including Literature, if we do not reciprocate respect for those who do not know about Literature.