Perspectives: A Review of 2011
by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - December 19, 2011) It was the last year that I taught at Sonoma State University in California after teaching there for 30 years in both the English Department and in Communication Studies. No one has been hired to replace me. That's because of the budget crunch/crisis, and so there will be fewer teachers and larger classes next semester, which doesn't necessarily mean inferior education, though it puts a strain on everyone. I meant to end my teaching career with a bang and not a whimper and by my own estimation I did, though there was little if any bang of a political sort on my campus. At Sonoma State University, student protests lasted about 45 minutes and included only a handful of people, though a few more undergraduates went to nearby Berkeley and Oakland to join Occupy Wall Street rallies there.
The vast majority of students finds the notion of protesting in the streets un-American and see it as a bad mark on a résumé. Perhaps their perception is accurate. Still, the incoming class struck me as feisty and outspoken -- more so than the older students. I think there is a generational shift that's taking place. This wave of students was too young to really understand 9/11 when it happened -- they would have been seven and eight years old and they never seemed to have learned to shut up. They are fearless and not easily intimidated and they complain that teachers patronize them. They know a patronizing look and tone of voice when they see and hear one, especially from teachers.
In one class I teach with 17- and 18-year-olds, the students painted a mural on three of the four walls in the classroom with images of flowers and trees and quotations from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They signed their names. Someone filed a complaint, though the mural was a work of beauty. The police came, wrote down the names of the students, and a work crew painted over the mural. The wall is white again. I had to persuade the police not to arrest the students for "vandalism" and "graffiti." The university has "zero tolerance" for "graffiti" we were told. Hey, the whole project, from beginning to end, was educational for all of us; we learned about making art and the inflexibility of power. The same students made two ten-minute movies -- wrote, directed, produced, filmed, and edited them in just two days. Both were good. One was a love story about a young married couple; the young man joins the army, goes to fight in Afghanistan, and dies in combat, leaving the woman a widow.
The administration provided ample funds to throw a retirement party -- there was food and live music and a hundred or so friends, colleagues, students, and family members. It felt like a good way to say goodbye to academia. For thirty years, teaching has been a way to make a living, to benefit from academic freedom, and be able to teach what I wanted to teach. It will take some time to reflect on those thirty years and to see the bigger picture as well as the little details, but I do feel that in some ways the institution has corrupted me, perhaps not in major ways but in minor ways. It's a challenge to resist the power of an institution that provides a salary, an office, a telephone, and a computer and even though I aimed not to be swallowed up by the institution, I feel as though I was. Hey, I'm Jonah, and the college was my whale or Leviathan. I've been inside the whale too long. I'm looking forward to life outside the whale again.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin, soon to retire from the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. His latest book, Marijuanaland, Dispatches From An American War (2011), is reviewed by Peter Byrne in these pages. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)