A ticklish subject: Decrying, defending Žižek as teacher

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

  • Slavoj Žižek’s pedagogy became a topic of debate among critics and supporters of the philosopher after video of an interview with Žižek was posted to YouTube. In the 10-minute video, recorded in April at the 2014 Žižek Conference in Cincinnati, Žižek discusses his loathing of office hours, among other subjects. Regarding classes he has taught in the U.S., Žižek recalls telling students “If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A”. Here is the video on YouTube, or you can watch the embed below:

I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.

  • And regarding office hours:

I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?

Zizek has always been vocal about his general disdain for students and humanity writ large. He once admitted in 2008 that seeing stupid people happy makes him depressed, before describing teaching as the worst job he has ever had.

[…]

On a personal note, I was once told at the New School by a senior faculty member that Zizek would fill up his sign-up sheet for office hours with fake names to avoid student contact. I still wonder if that story is true, but now it doesn’t seem so out of character.

I have no idea what a superstar like Žižek gets paid, and I don’t know if he actually fills his office-hours sign-up sheet with fake names so that none of the “boring idiots” come and bother him with their stupid problems, as one New School faculty member has apparently claimed. But I feel safe in guessing that he earns more to not-grade one “shitty paper” than many professors do in a semester.

The real problem with Žižek, in any case, isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a common “superstar” view of students—so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don’t, lest you appear not “serious” enough about your research.

[…]

The academy is in crisis. The humanities’ relevance is questioned obnoxiously on a near-daily basis. Humanists need to think carefully about who our heroes are, and who should represent our disciplines to the public. Maybe, just maybe, this Ži-jerk has finally proved himself unsuited to the task.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

That I have met Zizek personally and can attest that he is no jerk is a minor point. That I personally witnessed him reject dinner with established professors and instead choose to sit with undergraduate students at a University of Rochester event is also fairly trivial but instructive about his actual attitude towards students.

[…]

No one has been more outspoken, or effective, about combating this “crisis” [in academia] than Zizek. He is dogmatic in his steadfast criticism of the Bologna reforms in Europe. Rejecting globalization’s call for experts instead of critically-thinking humanists cannot be accomplished through office hours and friendly teaching styles.

The risk of losing liberal arts is indelibly linked to the intrusion of unfettered (ostensibly) “market” mechanisms throughout human life. Where there used to be at least some sanctuary, now there is none. Education is just one of the last to fall.

Mrs. Schuman also uses the basic strategy that is usually employed by politically right-wing authors who try to dismiss Žižek’s political engagements, more specifically taking one of his jokes out of context. I have followed some comments of various professors online about this specific Žižek’s statement of ‘not reading and examining student papers’ and most of them have shared some sympathy with Žižek’s joke, agreeing that doing such work actually consumes a huge amount of their time for which they don’t receive much gratification. Mrs. Schuman fails to notice that Žižek is employed as senior researcher and not as a regular professor, at least at his faculty in Ljubljana and to attack him for not grading papers there is simply absurd, since it’s a formal post and it’s quite rare that he appears to deliver a lecture there at all. She also, like most of the people bashing him, fails to notice the statement was a joke, like many of phrases like this mainly produced in recorded interviews to provoke a media response, so in a way Mrs. Schuman’s text could have said to have been expected before it was ever written.

But anyone who is familiar with how he develops theory should notice that he is also the International Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birbkeck in London, where he annually holds very serious ‘masterclasses’, which consist of multiple successive days of lectures followed by discussions with his students, where there is more than enough opportunity for those who are genuinely interested in his work to provide their comments and criticism, and more importantly, get a first-person perspective and a chance to collaborate on the development of his theory; his lectures there have often ended up as important parts of his big philosophical tomes later on. So he does teach classes, very important classes which have philosophical consequences, and Mrs. Schuman repeats the accusation against him simply because she doesn’t seem to be very familiar with his work. Those that are obsessed with Žižek’s place in the employment scheme of academia usually harbour resentment and envy due to their personal lack of luck at getting a satisfying job in the academic machinery and are just searching for quick attempts at dismissal.

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